frontline 10

The Cameronians and the Reclaiming of Scotland's Revolutionary Tradition

Continuing our look at Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746' by Neil Davidson, Allan Armstrong of the Republican Communist Network replies to some of the points in the book.

book publication produces political storm

It is unusual for a book covering a long-past piece of history to cause a political storm. However, that is exactly what has occurred in the SSP with the publication of Neil Davidson's Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746. This is a very well-researched piece of work and merits serious attention, since it does deal with vital issues, which have resonance today - What is progress? What is a revolution? What is a nation? It is this last question that has caused so much concern to left nationalists in the SSP. Their reaction has bordered on the hysterical (1).

All of these questions need to be addressed. However, this article will look at the issue of Scotland's revolutionary tradition. Neil's book is organised around an unfolding historical narrative from 1692 to 1746 (and beyond) and by engaging in polemic with those arguing for a different view of events. The conclusion attacks the notion of 'revolution from below' and devotes several pages to criticising my work in particular (2).

Neil wants to establish that a 'revolution from above' took place between 1692-1746 (3). He misleadingly calls this a Scottish Revolution. I would argue that what really occurred was a Scottish 'revolution from below', beginning round about 1680 and reaching its highpoint in 1689. The Scottish and English ruling classes, soon to merge as a new British ruling class, could not seriously begin their British 'revolution from above' until they had completed their 'counter-revolution within the revolution'. This meant attacking and marginalising the real Scottish Revolution.

Who was involved in this Scottish 'revolution from below'? The official name of the group was the United Societies; they're better-known name the Cameronians. However, I doubt that many SSP members even know this name. This is because a left-wing variant of British unionist history has dominated our thinking for so long. This reflects the all-Britain nature of socialist parties up until the formation of the SSP. As a result of the long domination of British unionist history on the Left, a populist Jacobite history and culture has permeated wide sections of society in Scotland, not least the Left. Ironically this 'divine right' monarchist tradition is unionist too - only it is the Union of the Crowns it upholds. It is an indication of the serious lack of knowledge of Scotland's own vernacular revolutionary traditions that there are Scottish socialists, who identify with this feudal, counter-revolutionary tradition (4).

There are several more theoretical aspects to this debate, which I have addressed elsewhere (5). What I am going to do in the remainder of this article is to acquaint readers with the history of the Cameronians in their revolutionary period.

the origins of the Cameronians

The Cameronians came out of an earlier radical Covenanting tradition (6). They drew their support mainly from bonnet lairds, tenant farmers and artisans, particularly in southwest Scotland. Covenanters had suffered a lot of repression under Charles II's regime, particularly at the hands of its local Scottish henchmen - Archbishop Sharp, 'Butcher Turner', 'Bluidy Mackenzie', and 'Bluidy Clavers' ('Bonnie Dundee' to his Jacobite admirers!). Radical Covenanters managed to defeat Turner at the battle of Drumclog in 1679. The UK state moved to crush them. Up until the Radical Covenanters confronted the government forces at Bothwell Brig they still had the support of some minor aristocrats. They led the cavalry away from the battlefield, leaving the gallant foot soldiers to put up a desperate fight where they were defeated and many captured and imprisoned in Edinburgh ready for transportation.

It was in response to these events that a radical left wing Covenanting organisation was planned. A few conspirators secretly produced Scotland's first republican programme, the Queensferry Paper, in 1680. It stated that, 'We shall no more commit of the government of ourselves and the making of laws for us, to any one single person or lineal successor.' This effectively formed the founding 'programme' of the United Societies. One of its leaders, who was to give the organisation its better-known name, was Richard Cameron. He rode with some followers into Sanquhar in Dumfriesshire in 1680 and publicly pinned up a challenge to the Stuarts on the town cross. A month later he was killed at Airds Moss.

The state response to the Cameronians was to launch the period of Scottish history known as 'The Killing Times'. The repression was severe and 'the life expectancy of the leaders was very short... Yet the remarkable thing is that despite the level of repression, the United Societies grew. In 1683 there were 80 societies with 7000 members. In Hector Macpherson's excellent book, The Cameronians' Philosopher - Alexander Shields, we are told that the Societies represented virtually a state within a state. They cast out anyone 'who took bonds, rendered by the government, who paid taxes to the civil authorities or stipends to the indulged clergy, made use of a government pass, voluntarily appeared before any court of law, supplied any commodities to the enemy or allowed any of these in their name...''

'Establishment historians, such as Rosalind Mitchison, denigrate the evidence of 'The Killing Times', saying it has been mightily exaggerated. Yet all over the south of Scotland there are memorials to individuals slaughtered during this period. It is a major achievement of the United Societies that they kept a record of many of those killed and made sure their names were remembered'. Copies of their documented evidence can still be found in many libraries, published as A Cloud of Witnesses. The Cameronians 'behaved exactly like {modern} national liberation movements which try to monitor and record the atrocities of government backed death squads... They also had to support prisoners in places like Bass Rock', the Stuart government's 'Robben Island' of its day.

the Cameronians push their 'revolution from below'

Although 'The Killing Times' had taken a heavy toll on the domestic leaders of the United Societies, their underground organisation had continued to grow. Several leaders lived in exile in the Dutch Republic. This was a major centre of revolutionary organisation at the time. Here English, Scottish and French Calvinists and Independents; aristocratic oppositionists, merchants and ministers all mingled and plotted.

Leading Cameronian, Alexander Shields wrote and published his key revolutionary text, A Hind Let Loose in the Dutch Republic. The Cameronians' strongest base certainly lay in Dumfries, Galloway and the Borders. These were the areas furthest from the royalist policed cities such as Edinburgh, where oppositionists had to live an even more clandestine existence.

After surviving and organising throughout 'The Killing Times' a new opportunity arose. 'When King James continued his slide to absolutism... even the larger merchants and commercial landowners in England became alarmed. However, it wasn't until the birth of James' son, which would almost guarantee a Catholic succession {and continued subordination towards absolutist France} that they invited William of Orange, the Dutch Stadtholder {like a President albeit with royalist pretensions}, to be king.'

In England, William's overthrow of James in 1688 was bloodless - hence the name 'Glorious Revolution'. In Scotland and Ireland this proved to be far from the case. 'The news of William's arrival provoked a riot in Edinburgh, against James VII appointees. This is exactly what the Scottish nobles feared and they had to manoeuvre smartly to contain events.' 'As a consequence the eventual Revolutionary Settlement of 1690 pushed further than William desired'.. {There was a} more polarised position here. There was a more serious counter-revolutionary threat from the Jacobites... {partly} because of the unbroken strength of the United Societies', who represented an immediate reminder of the 'dreaded days' of 1649.

'The United Societies had to decide their attitude to the latest turn of events. At last there was a chance of the repression being lifted. A heated debate took place at a General Meeting near Wanlockhead... All present saw the limitations of a change backed by many of the treacherous magnates and larger merchants. {These Cameronians} weren't prepared to dissolve themselves into a new Covenanter 'Popular Front' with the nobility. A minority, which was later to emerge under the leadership of Robert Hamilton, opposed any critical support for William. However, they were defeated by the majority, led by Alexander Shields. He argued for the need for support, whilst maintaining the right to act independently... We can see an early form of the debate between 'Popular Front', sectarianism and the United Front.'

'Quick action was required, however. James VII's main supporters planned a coup d'etat at the Edinburgh Convention of the Estates... They hoped to force Scotland into the camp of counter-revolution. The United Societies armed their men and marched them into Edinburgh. First they 'rabled the curates'. This meant they turned out all James' supporters from their kirks. This was done without loss of life and was a very disciplined action.'

It is the next phase of 'the revolution from below', which Neil ignores, so keen is he to clear the decks for his 'revolution from above'. 'A Watching Committee was elected to supervise the Convention. The armed societies soon put an end to Claverhouse's planned coup d'etat. He fled to the Highlands. With the Convention overawed, the Societies' General Meetings 'began to assume the function of a Provisional Government' according to Macpherson. Although a better analogy would be that of 'Dual Power''. 'There is substantial evidence that many of them would like to have had a republic, as many men had come to believe that all kings were oppressors.'

the Cameronian regiment - the 'Red Army' of 1690

The new 'King William wasn't happy with developments in Scotland. His support from large merchants and landed interests would evaporate, if there were a prospect of rule by the lower orders. However, for the moment he needed the Cameronians to fend off the Jacobite threat in the Highlands of Scotland. He tried to absorb the Cameronians into the regular army, under the king's officers. This they refused to accept. Already, at the Sanquhar General Meeting of January 24th 1689, they had decided to raise a Cameronian army, under their own officers. It was disbanded after the defeat of the coup d'etat. However, after further debate at the Douglas General Meeting on April 29th, it was agreed to form a Cameronian regiment, under the command of William Cleland and Lord Angus... The youthful Angus was appointed by the Provisional Government in Edinburgh to try to co-opt this development. {Despite being a committed Covenanter} the decision caused some dissension amongst the Cameronians' {at the next General Meeting because of his aristocratic background.}

'Meanwhile Claverhouse had raised a Jacobite force of 2,000 Highland clansmen. They smashed William's regular army of 4,000 at Killiekrankie, although Claverhouse himself was killed. All that now lay between these clansmen, now increased to 5,000 men, eager for booty and a gateway to the Lowlands and capital was a force of 1,200 Cameronians, under the command of William Cleland. The Cameronians manned the walls of Dunkeld cathedral.'

'The two extremes of Scottish politics confronted one another at Dunkeld - they fought for hedges, ditches, walls, houses, roofs and rooms. It was a savage battle because it was an ideological battle, a classically bitter and vicious civil war in miniature (Cleland received bullets in the head and the liver during the Highlanders' first assault.) But their second assault was turned by the Cameronian pikemen. 'Cleland died, but his men held Dunkeld, and the Jacobite force retired, dispersed and ceased to exist.'

'The Cameronians had stopped this immediate counter-revolutionary threat. That they were able to do this was largely due to democratic organisation combined with revolutionary fervour. The same combination allowed the Red Guards to be victorious over the forces of reaction in Russia in 1917. However there never was an 'October' for the Cameronians. The class of 'bonnet lairds', tenant farmers and artisans wasn't cohesive enough to push forwards any further. They were increasingly pushed aside by another class of commercial landlords and larger merchants.'

King William is forced to bow to the 'revolution from below'

Yet the Cameronians and their legacy didn't just fade away. They had made such an impact on Scotland through their 'revolution from below', that the Scottish and later post-Union British state, as well as the commercial landlords, had to develop a political strategy and take punitive measures to eliminate their impact - not least on the constitution of the post-Revolution Scottish state itself. Even a historian as unsympathetic to the Cameronians as Rosalind Mitchison recognises the very different position of the post-Revolution Scottish and English states. 'The Scottish Revolution Settlements... the 'Claim of Rights' and the 'Article of Grievances' both go far beyond the cautious law defining the English 'Bill of Rights.''

'For the first time since 1640-51, the Scottish Parliament had become a significant political arena. It was no longer controlled by the king, through his appointed administrative committee... The 1689 Revolution Convention, held under the watchful eye of the United Societies-controlled 'Watching Committee' made sure that {this committee} was abolished.'

'This {committee} William would have preferred to retain... The simple truth is that William didn't want to have to give up any royal powers... He and his supporters argued that however bad past kings had been, William was good and trustworthy, and would not abuse his powers. The view of the Convention was that any king with the power to oppress was always likely to become an oppressor... Only after a year of political maneuvering was William forced to admit defeat in May 1690... The result was that the Scottish parliament... was free to develop policies and to decide on issues. It was free to take initiatives in diplomacy and commerce.' Of course, the principal weakness of the new Parliament was the incredibly narrow franchise (far more limited even than England). This meant that only a handful of people from newer social forces were represented, like Fletcher of Saltoun. Nevertheless, as a result of the changes brought about by the Scottish Revolution, a new, if very much a minority, voice was heard in the Scottish Parliament for the first time. The most revolutionary forces of course remained outside.

the Whig 'counter-revolution within the revolution' hits back

'The history of King William and Queen Anne's administrations was partly directed at eliminating this radical difference between Scotland and England. The 1707 Act of Union became central to this legacy.' Indeed it needed the Union before the final political act could be passed to eliminate the last radical measure bequeathed by the Revolution Settlement in Scotland. The Patronage Act passed by the British Parliament in 1712 allowed the landowners to appoint local ministers in direct contravention of the Revolution Settlement.

Thus, before Neil's British 'revolution from above' could really take off, the Scottish 'revolution from below' had to be dealt with by the 'counter-revolution within the revolution'. William's administration, far from taking decisive action against the Jacobites, constantly tried to woo them over.

Once a British Parliament had been set up, a further attempt was made to cement the political divisions amongst the large landowners. The Toleration Act was passed in 1712. 'This was ostensibly an attempt to win over the Episcopalian clergy. In reality it was an attempt to further cement the class interests of the landed oligarchy, by healing the division between Presbyterian and Episcopalian landlords.' Quite clearly, what was happening here, was assimilation to the English model with its directly state-run Anglican Church. This gave landowning families considerable local power. Here we have 'counter-revolution' being imported from south of the border, certainly not revolution, even 'from above'.

Moreover, as well as rolling back the constitutional impact of the 1689-91 'revolution from below', direct attacks were made on the independence of the Cameronians. 'The main body of the Cameronians... became involved in helping fight William's wars on the continent against Louis XIV. The independently officered Cameronian regiment suffered heavily at the battles of Namur and Steinkirk in 1692, where the regiment was all but annihilated... Despite the military setbacks, William must have been secretly pleased at the weakening of this potential challenge.'

Therefore even before 1707, the Cameronian forces were in retreat. They could see that the proposed Act of Union would undermine their position. They organised a mass protest in Dumfries, burning a copy of the Articles of Union and a list of the Commissioners responsible for the Union negotiations. 300 armed men formed the core of a demonstration several thousand strong.

However this, and other demonstrations in Edinburgh and Glasgow, alerted the authorities to the danger and led to the major concession - the maintenance of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, won under the Revolution Settlement in Scotland in 1690. This broke the ranks of the opposition, but of course, it didn't satisfy the Cameronians, who remained strongly anti-unionist.

The Cameronian heartlands were to be one of the first areas to experience 'Improvement'. The first Clearances took place, not in the Highlands, but in Galloway. The local landlords had become increasingly confident as a result of the growing marginalisation of the Cameronians. The Act of Union, particularly the power of patronage, had also reinforced their position. 'They now felt confident enough to finally break the power of the small tenant farmers. They introduced the first enclosures in Scotland. 'to enlarge the stock farms to profit from the thriving cattle trade with England... However, this did provoke a last ditch resistance from the Galloway Levellers. A Cameronian minister pinned up their grievances on the door of Borgue Church, near Kirkudbright. The ministers of the Church of Scotland were now firmly under aristocratic control. 'For a few months in 1724 {the Levellers} resolutely broke down enclosures and ignored the shocked denunciations of ministers who were now serving God and Property.' They went down to defeat. All effective Cameronian local power was now broken. All that was open to 'the suffering remnant' was 'to bear witness'. Independent political inactivity now went hand in hand with religious quietism and piety.

Radical Covenanters and their later influence

The radical left-wing Covenanting tradition went underground for most of the eighteenth century. However, it re-emerged in the United Scotsmen and early trade union organisations. Their democratic organisation was modelled on that of the Cameronians. They had formed United Societies organised in wider Correspondences. They kept in contact by circulating Declarations (early manifestoes). These were discussed and debated at their General Meetings. The very language of these new democratic and working class organisations comes directly from the earlier United Societies. 'A national Committee of Scottish Union Societies had emerged during the 1812 (Glasgow weavers') strike. The word 'society' has a long pedigree in Scottish political history. Presbyterian extremists in the seventeenth century frequently being referred to as 'society men.'

As a new Scottish working class, initially mainly artisans, began to form itself, they abandoned the grimmer aspects of the Covenanting tradition. 'Many of them, particularly around Paisley were lyric poets and they had a joyous enthusiasm for the arts and sciences... support {for the United Scotsmen} came from the weavers, extraordinary men with firm radical Calvinistic convictions.'

Thomas Muir was a leading Radical of this period. He presented a memorial to the French Directory to try and enlist aid for a joint United Scotsmen/United Irishmen Rising in 1797. In it he explained how the presbyterian party had 'always turned tyrants pale and sometimes hurled them from the throne to the scaffold'. It was Burns, inspired by an account of the 1685 Covenanter martyrs, who wrote the following lines probably in 1794.

The Solemn League and Covent
			Now brings a smile, now brings a tear
			But sacred Freedom, too, was theirs
			If thou'rt a slave, indulge thy sneer.

The Cameronians, like the later United Scotsmen and, in particular, like John Maclean, were Scottish internationalists. It is only from this perspective that their struggles can be understood - certainly neither by today's left British unionist Whig apologists nor by left Scottish nationalist Jacobite sympathisers. Internationalism from below both maintains our independence whilst allowing us to join with others, 'That Man to Man, the warld o'er shall brithers be for a' that.' Aye, and as Rosie Kane would not do doubt say, 'Aye and sisters too!'


(1) see Nationalist Questions in SSV 141
(2) N. Davidson, Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746, p. 289-294, 299- 300
(3) N. Davidson, op. cit, p.9-15
(4) see SSV 141 op. cit.
(5) This is a shorter version of an article, Claymores Unsheathed and Bayonets Fixed, Left nationalism confronts left unionism in the SSP.
(6) A. Armstrong, Jacobite or Covenanter? in a collection under the same name, with the Jacobite position put by Gerry Cairns. All the rest of the quotes in the article come from this. (e-mail:- to arrange for a copy).