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December 31st 1772

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Grain riots in Perth

Towards the end of 1772 acute shortages of meal were experienced in many parts of Scotland but particularly in Perthshire. There had been a bad harvest but in spite of this the traditional export of grain from Perth continued. There was news of a ship loading grain at Errol and shortly before Christmas a group of about sixty men from Newburgh in Fife crossed over the water. After a battle with the crew of the boat and a number of farmers with their workers, they were driven off. This was the first sign of the troubles to come.

Over Christmas in Perth, there was an uneasy calm, but a few days later news percolated through the town that a sloop was loading bear (a form of barley) at the New Shore. At this time there was an extensive weaving trade in Perth and news was quickly passed from one loom shop to another, but so discreetly that the magistrates were unaware of their impending problems.

Finally on the night of December 30th, the men began to collect in small groups, to saunter casually past the Speygate, along beside the South Inch and then towards the port. By ten o’clock a large crowd had arrived at the sloop and proceeded to board it. The crew made no resistance and the mob set to work removing the grain from the hold. The magistrates were informed of the affair and with a number of citizens made their way to the New Shore but were ignored by the mob. They quickly dispatched a message to the small force of military stationed in the town but by the time that they arrived the men had disappeared. About 2½ ton of bear had been looted. The magistrates left a small guard over the sloop and retired to bed. All was quiet until about three in the morning when the rioters reappeared and attacked the shop of a baker, John Smith. His stock of meal, flour and bread and ransacked but before the business could be completed, the military appeared and two of the rioters were captured and placed in the town jail.

The next day, New Year’s day, there were still angry groups of men discussing the imprisonment of their friends. As evening came they massed in the High Street and started to advance towards the Old Tolbooth at the bottom of the street. This time the council and magistrates were ready. A detachment of infantry were stationed in front of the Tollbooth with a couple of cannon in their midst. For all this display of power the mob advanced pelting the soldiers and the Provost with stones. It was at this stage that the Provost read the Riot Act.

The soldiers loaded their muskets with ball cartridges and the cannon with grape- shot but no command to fire was given. Either through fear or common humanity, the Provost at the last moment decided to agree to the rioter’s demands; the two prisoners were released from the jail and delivered to their friends. There were shouts of triumph from the rioters and the crowds started to disperse. It was hoped that this would be the end of the affair but the leaders had other ideas.

A crowd of about four hundred of them made their way to Elcho where they had heard that large quantities of grain had been stored. The farmer, Mr Donaldson, had already applied for protection and a military guard of ten men had been dispatched to guard the farm. However when the rioters, still in a triumphant and boisterous mood, appeared the soldiers having only three round of shot between them, decided that discretion was the better part of valour and retired smartly leaving Elcho to its fate. When Mr Donaldson refused admission to the mob they broke the windows and battered in the doors. Donaldson and his family fled and the mob in a orgy of destruction smashed up the furniture in the house. They found the keys to the old castle where the grain was stored and were in the process of opening the store when Mr Keir, a neighbouring JP, appeared and calmly and very bravely reasoned with the men. As he was well respected he was listened to without interruption. When he had finished he opened up the granary. There were about 200 bolls (about 12 ton) of wheat and barley and Mr Keir promised that it should be brought to Perth for sale as soon as possible.

The rioters departed in good humour and on their arrival at Perth, about four miles away, woke up the Sheriff-Substitute, handed him the keys to Elcho Castle with a request that he should order the grain to be brought to Perth to be ground and sold for what it would fetch.

There were further attacks on two other farms in the neighbourhood but in each case the farmer was able to demonstrate that he was not hoarding grain. They had also learned from the experience of Mr Donaldson and treated the men, not with hostility, but with a generous measure of ale. As a consequence their properties were unharmed. There were two further forays but by January 4th, the magistrates had met and sent for more military aid.

On the evening of January 5th, a troop of dragoons from Linlithgow arrived in the town and the rioting and mobbing ceased With the arrival of the military the forces of law and order resumed control and five of the ringleaders were arrested and ordered to appear at the High Court in Edinburgh accused of breaking into Mr Donaldson’s house at Elcho. Only two of the five appeared in court. The Solicitor General in his address to the jury admitted that the charges against the defendants were not proved and they were unanimously found not guilty. So ended the Perth meal riots with no single prosecutions made against any of the rioters.

The Perth Magazine gave what was no doubt the accepted view of the events at the time. “The original cause of these outrages is said to be the want of meal in Perth for ten days preceding the first mob. This, to be sure is a very great error in those who have charge of the police; but at the same time it will by no means excuse the mob who ought to have deputed some persons to wait upon the magistrates and sheriff to represent their starving condition, who no doubt would have given immediate redress. The pelting and insulting of the soldiers, whose assistance was called for by the magistrates, can admit of no apology.”

Present day opinion might be somewhat more sympathetic towards the mobbers.

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