Little Rebellions – Something Rotten?

With a nod to my supervisor’s posts of last year’s interesting Documents of the Day (DotD) found along the way in archives and libraries, I’ve been tickled to do something similar in this forum, which has lain woefully underutilized since the commencement of my doctoral paper chase. The series had always been in the works to one day be hosted over at Spines of the Thistle, but that project has been set back by the apparent need to write a proper thesis, amongst other pressing things. Websites can come later, but until then, here’s some intrigue in Auld Reekie in what will likely become the very first Document of the Week (DotW)  – as long as my commitment to the project is allowed the space.

Hugh Blair to Colin Mitchell, September 1745

Hugh Blair to Colin Mitchell, Goldsmith in the Canongate, Edinburgh
Tuesday, 26th September 1745

                                               I beg the
favour you will come to my house this
day att half an hour after two precisely
about a piece of Necessary business. I am
                                                  Dr Sir
                                              Yours
                                                    Hugh Blair

One of the benefits of working with a prosopographical database for historical research is being able to find commonalities in large amounts of data hitherto disconnected and most certainly unnoticed. Perhaps the most intriguing so far in my own studies is the discovery that about one-half of the active goldsmiths, or “hammermen”, in Edinburgh during the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6 gave evidence against the other half citing rebellious activities to the government authorities. That this strange web of blame occurs nowhere else and within no other occupation with such frequency is striking, and while there is no direct evidence yet uncovered that marks this as anything other than an odd coincidence, one gets the feeling that there might be something else to the story.

What we do know about Edinburgh at the time of the Forty-five – though it is not often written about – is that it was under significant economic duress; a capital town in the midst of civil war, infested with all the mania and fear that comes along with that terrible, rifting state. Questing Jacobites might have been the catalyst for this current round of finger-pointing, but numerous complaints had also been lodged against the stranglehold that the burgh’s incorporated guilds had woven across multiple industries. There was a distinct feeling that there was too much competition and not enough wealth to support each struggling vendor and craftsman, not to mention the political influence lobbied upon the administration of Edinburgh by guild heavies. As brazenly illustrated by a “friend” of the protestor Philodinus Scotus:

“I judge Corportations of Tradesmen to be Nuisances to every Community where they are to be found, particularly to the City of Edinburgh; and moreover injurious to the industrious Tradesmen themselves…The City is at present under a vast Load of Debt; every Branch of Trade is overdone, and great Numbers are reduced to Straits, and even to Want itself. The Poor increase daily, and the Poors’ Funds sink a-pace, while the Citizens become daily less able to support them.”

It makes sense, then, that the Jacobite menace – Origo Mali to the Presbyterian majority of the burgh – could have been a timely bugbear unwittingly poised to help thin the ranks of competing industry. What better way than to disrupt the business of occupational rivals than to publicly accuse them of treasonable activities in the midst of civil war? In a time and place of an uncertain economic and societal future, where Jacobitism was considered by many to be the “Source and Spring of all the Evils” in the world, getting ahead by any means necessary does not seem so far out of bounds. To verify this definitively, more time would need to be spent with the Treasury Papers at Kew, whereupon the relevant trial records could be vetted and checked against the pattern of informants to discern if there was, indeed, legitimate proof against the accused. Few of the alleged Jacobite goldsmiths in Edinburgh appear in the lists of prisoners that also describe the fate of the condemned, and even fewer are listed in existing muster rolls. Examination of the records of the Incorporation of Hammermen could also shed some light on if the lines between guilded practitioners and skilled freemen were drawn in accusatory ink. As of now, there is no consolidated investigation of these men’s final standings. JDB1745 will likely remedy that.

In scanning the copious records of Edinburgh goldsmith Colin Mitchell’s personal papers at the National Records of Scotland, there is no substantiation that he had any Jacobite leanings. In fact, Mitchell himself gave evidence against one alleged Jacobite: Robert Gordon, an alehouse keeper also resident in the capital. Though during and after the last rising, Mitchell appears to have frustrated numerous patrons by ignoring their queries about his long-overdue commissions, he appears to have been a prolific craftsman with a popularly positive reputation. The document posted above, then, is likely nothing so nefarious. But stumbling upon such a page, knowing the context of the place and period, conjures all sorts of interesting threads of intrigue on which to follow up.

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