IN LOOKING for reasons why so many leaders of the Dunfermline community had sympathy with the prisoner Alexander Black it is worth noting something the Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Hope, identified. He stated: “That the magistrates and others may have a strong feeling against the Irish Catholics and in favour of the townspeople is very far from recommending in my opinion any Mitigation of this lenient sentence.”
Lord Hope’s statement is hardly a revelation as the strong feeling against Roman Catholics was in keeping with the popular mood in Scotland at the time. Natives of Dunfermline, who were almost exclusively Protestant, would have been hostile to those of the Roman Catholic faith, especially the Irish influx, coming to Scotland in increasing numbers fleeing the famine or An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger 1846-51), there, as they saw them not only as a threat to their employment prospects, but as a threat to their dominant position in society.
This fear was in fact unfounded, given that the Roman Catholic congregation of Dunfermline town in 1846, when their clergyman became a resident, was tiny, numbering a mere 396 out of Dunfermline Burgh’s circa 13,000 population—of that, say, 10,000 in the town itself.
At the time of the petition, Roman Catholics had no resident priest or church, having in October 1851 to lease The Masons’ Hall, in Queen Ann Place for their place of worship. So they were hardly a threat to the established order.
But there is another aspect to the hostility towards Irish Catholics and it’s exemplified in an opinion piece in one of the main reporters of the events in Dunfermline in 1850, the Fifeshire Journal. In an editorial from December of that year the Journal comments on an event that had no relevance to Scotland, a Church edict from the Pope—who the editor refers to as ‘the man of sin’—on the naming of a diocese in England and Wales.
An editorial dripping in vitriol shows that some of the strong anti-Catholic sentiment and hatred prevalent in Scotland at this time can be traced to Ireland where local, mainly Protestant, soldiers were currently stationed, and where, in the past, local regiments had served.
During the 1798 Irish Rebellion, various Fife regiments saw action there, including, Lord Elgin’s Fencibles in Cork, the Fifeshire Corps in Antrim, and the Fifeshire Fencibles in Enniskillen. The latter two locations were areas where the Orange Order had been active since the 1790s.
As well as the 1798 troubles, many locals would have served in deployments of the regular army to Ireland since then and brought back anti-Catholic sentiment, something that led to the formation of Orange Order lodges in Scotland. A problem that’s still with us today.
The Fifeshire Journal and other newspapers were not so much giving a dog-whistle to racism against the Irish immigrants, but a clarion call. Just as the mostly Muslim refugees now arriving at the UK’s borders in boats and lorries are reported in sensationalist fashion by the tabloid newspapers to pander to the xenophobes and bigots among their readership today, so then were Irish Catholics the easy target to blame for all society’s ills.
History of intolerance
But the history of anti-Irish racism in Scotland pre-dates Orangeism and is as old as the hills. It emanated from London, the headquarters of the British—or, more accurately, English—Empire, which like all empires had to have an excuse for their colonisation of lands they coveted. Ireland was such a target and in order to justify stealing the land the excuse they gave was that the native inhabitants were too primitive and stupid to properly manage the land for themselves.
Scotland largely sided with the English in this land grab, providing most of the Protestant ‘planters’ who were given lands confiscated from the Roman Catholic natives, in the same way that this was done in Africa by the colonial powers there.
While the lumpen bigot might pick up a cudgel to beat his Irish neighbour with, the drawing room bigot practised their racism verbally, with finesse, but with the same message.
Andrew Carnegie perhaps personified this refined racism when he praised Oliver Cromwell—whose self-confessed pathological hatred of Irish Catholics led to awful crimes during his campaign in Ireland—as being worth more than all the British monarchs ‘a’ thegither,’ a history lesson he learned at the knee of his ‘inestimable’ mentor and ‘uncle’ George Lauder.
The historic prevalence of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment in Scotland may explain how the crimes of the Dunfermline weavers were viewed with sympathy by many. The ‘othering’ of Irish Catholics made them a sub-species, little more than animals as far as some Scots Protestant zealots were concerned, and if they were treated in an inhumane manner, as the Dunfermline evictees were, then it wasn’t a cause for too much concern.
The dehumanising of the Irish only goes part of the way to explain why Alexander Black Senior, was singled out as deserving clemency. He wasn’t the oldest mobster and had his son Alexander Black Junior—who was also jailed—with him on the riot, so, on the face of it, he was a very poor example of someone deserving clemency.
This lack of any apparent reason as to why Black should be treated differently from the others was something the Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Hope, seemed puzzled by, as he commented to the effect that if he recommended a reduction of the extremely lenient sentence of Black he would have to do the same for all the others.
I was as puzzled as Lord Hope as to what set Black apart from the other 11 imprisoned Dunfermline natives. He was a lowly collier, not a prominent member of Dunfermline’s class conscious society and wasn’t in fact a native, being born in Midlothian, so could it be that Black had some other link to the prominent petitioners?
Could the petition have been instigated by William Kinnis the Provost of Dunfermline whose name is on the top line of signatories? Provost Kinnis had—with Bailies Ireland and Johnston and 60 special constables—witnessed the mob’s actions throughout the day, but despite this was not called as a witness for the Crown. This suggests to me that his disapproval of the acts of the mob was limited and dictated by politics rather than ethics, so could he have been playing populist politics to garner favour for his re-election.
The same could be said about other signatories to the petition who would have to be appointed to their public office. The Magistrate, John Bonnar, and Bailies Thomas Ireland and Tom Morrison—also Burgh Treasurer—wouldn’t have added their names if they thought this would disadvantage them.
There is little or no evidence to suppose that Black was a black-sheep, a sinner who had fallen by the way and the petitioners were his co-religionists seeking his early release back into the fold. Black was baptised and married in the West Parish Church, Liberton, Edinburgh so his religion would be mainstream Presbyterian, which would have been in common with most of the petitioners but, others, such as Tom Morrison was certainly hostile to that church and other signatories were Baptist, Methodist, Swedeborgian, and so on, so the possibility that the petitioners sought to have Black sitting in the pew beside them of a Sunday seems remote.
There seems no blood relationship linking Black to the main movers in the petition. His father Peter Black was a native of Bo’Ness, West Lothian, and his mother Elizabeth Dingwall though born in Dunfermline doesn’t appear to have any close kinship with any of the major players in the petition.
As well as his civic role, Tom Morrison was a prime mover in agitation for improved conditions for weavers and miners, which led to workers’ strikes. When some of these strikes burgeoned out of control into riots it was often Tom Morrison who acted as a pacifying force and go-between for workers and bosses. It seems odd that the ubiquitous Mr Morrison’s name is nowhere to be found in the papers reporting the 1850 riot in either role, but once the dust settles he is again prominent as a backer of the petition to release Black.
Could it be that Black and Morrison were brethren in the Radical Party that Tom led? Or fraters in the Friends of the People, which summoned their members with the booming of the Nethertown Weicht? When Tom Morrison was arrested and charged with Sedition it was as a result of meetings he and the miners’ leader John Henderson were organising among militant colliers. Black, a miner, may have been an activist in a colliers’ radical movement leading to him having links with Morrison via Henderson.
In my lifetime’s working experience, I often found the inexplicable explained by Freemasonry, so perhaps Black shared the benefits of membership of the Freemasons with some of the petitioners? The Freemasons, according to Alexander Stewart—a noted historian of the times—were very active and popular in Dunfermline, having many eminent members.
The difficulty in establishing any link Black may have had with petition supporters who may have been members of these three organisations is that they are all, by definition, secret or secretive societies. The only society of the three that is still in existence is the Freemasons and though the records of the St John’s Lodge—‘one of the most venerable lodges in the kingdom’ according to Stewart’s reminiscences—are held in the Carnegie Dunfermline Central Library they are only available to researchers if the lodge grant permission to allow access.
In my case, my application to view the lodge records for research purposes to Dunfermline Library, after a Freedom of Information request to the CEO of Fife Council, was directed to the lodge secretary, of St John’s Lodge—also a leading light in Townhill’s Orange Order—who refused me access to this record, due to what he says, are my views expressed on this subject and my previous criticism of the Craft.
So in the absence of any evidence as to how Black was seen as being in any way deserving of any preferential treatment I’m left to speculate that perhaps Dunfermline’s self-styled ‘People’s Champion,’ Tom Morrison, organised the petition to release Black, a fellow Radical, Friend or Mason from prison? I don’t know which, if any of my speculation is accurate, but regardless of whose idea the petition was, it was a bad one. I may be unsure of who instigated the petition to free Black, but I am absolutely certain that those who carried out the expulsion of the Irish deserved to be punished without mercy and that the 1850 riot and expulsions were not a spontaneous reaction to an Irish navvy affray.
Like Lord Hope, I’m convinced that ‘the Riot was regularly conceived and planned.’ The logistics involved in summoning and directing such a great number of evil-disposed persons to carry out a systematic eviction and expulsion of the Irish residents scattered all over the Burgh of Dunfermline, prove to me that this could not have been a spur-of-the-moment reaction to a drunken Saturday night fight when the pubs shut. This took some planning.
The resentment of the native workers who felt threatened by incoming workers from Ireland is understandable. If the situation had been reversed, the same resentment would have been felt in Ireland by the natives there. But what is not understandable is why the mob targeted those who were not recent incomers seeking employment, and were in fact settled residents of good standing. And, perhaps more importantly and inexplicably, is why the civic leaders of Dunfermline, the magistrates, ministers, gentry and businessmen, who, in a small town where the barbarous acts of the mob of thousands would have had witnessed by all, called for one of the main perpetrators to be released from prison?
This endorsement was all the more appalling as it was done, while at the same time ignoring the suffering of 100 and more of their Irish-born fellow citizens and the death of one of them.
Such callous indifference was unforgivable, particularly so from the Ministers of Dunfermline Abbey Church who, indifferent to the suffering of the many Irish Catholics who were beaten and abused on the road to North Queensferry, preached the parable of the Good Samaritan who helped the poor unfortunate Jewish traveller beaten and abused on the road to Jericho.
The same hypocrisy was displayed by George Lauder—after Carnegie the most famous citizen of his day—who had a Technical College built in his honour and named after him by his ‘nephew’ or surrogate son Andrew Carnegie. He was a great inventor, innovator, educationalist and social reformer and of all people should have known the actions of the mob were indefensible.
What’s the verdict?
If I were judging this matter today I would announce that:
—The expulsions were planned.
—The mob of native Dunfermline weavers and colliers were guilty of ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing with the tacit approval of Dunfermline’s gentry as well as the civic, religious and commercial leaders, who signified this with their petition.
If my conclusion seems fanciful, then a look through the rulings demonstrates the magnitude of the mob’s crimes in the expulsion of the Irishmen, women and children. You find there a sorry catalogue of violent, or as Lord Hope put it, barbaric crimes, for which, not one person was brought to book.
Tom Minogue is an Irish citizen living in Scotland, as well as an investigative writer and campaigner