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Scotland in revolt

Ian Bayne reviews The Scottish Insurrection of 1820 by Peter Berresford Ellis and Seumas Mac a' Ghobhainn, John Donald/Birlinn Ltd (Edinburgh), £12.99 pbk

During the 30-odd years since the first publication of this account of the 1820 Scottish radical rising Scotland's academic historians have failed to produce an 'authorised version' of the stirring events of that year of similar length, and set in the wider historical agenda -- in the aftermath of the American and French revolutions -- of a distinctive Scottish radical agenda.

This fact alone provides ample justification for unreservedly welcoming this long-overdue publication of this book's third edition.

The incorporation of a new preface written by the surviving co-author, Peter Berresford Ellis -- together with an updated bibliography, illustrations omitted from the 1989 edition and a fine shot of the renovated martyrs' memorial at Sighthill -- offers an additional bonus.

Those professional -- and largely unionist -- historians who were so scathing about the book when it first came out can now revisit it in a more relaxed post-devolution context. They can even re-assess their earlier instinctive dismissal of its allegedly controversial claims -- in particular its underlying theme that the rising's real instigators were government agents-provocateurs, determined to give Lord Liverpool's reactionary Tory administration any old excuse to crush the infant Scottish radical movement with exemplary brutality.

The authors' claim that the establishment of an independent Scottish parliament was a specific 1820 objective is perhaps less easily established.

The singing of Burn's patriotic song Scots Wha Hae, subsequently recognised as Scotland's national anthem, at various radical demonstrations in the months leading up to the rising, appreciated the ideological link between the medieval struggle for freedom from English rule and their own contemporary struggle for 'liberty' and 'justice'.

Moreover, the radicals' fundamental aim of achieving real democracy in Scotland easily translates into the on-going 21st century struggle for Scottish independence. To slightly paraphrase Thomas Muir at his 1793 trial for sedition: 'I have devoted myself to the cause of the (Scottish) people -- it's a good cause... -- it shall finally triumph."

It is a verdict with which the three executed martyrs -- and their 19 comrades transported to Botany Bay -- could scarcely have demurred.

A fuller version of this review appeared in the Scots Independent.

October/November 2001

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This document was last modified by Mick Carty on 2002-02-04 23:33:45.
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