The first National Convention of the Scottish Friends of the People, formed to demand parliamentary reform, met in Edinburgh on the 11th of December, 1792.
The most famous of the 18th Century 'Friends of the People' in Scotland was Thomas Muir of Huntershill who has since been eulogised in a terrific 20th Century folk song by Dick Gaughan of Leith. Puir Thomas Muir was arrested for sedition, tried, sentenced and transported to Australia, all for his involvement in being too much of a ‘Friend’ to the ‘wrong’ kind of people. That he was right is borne out by history and by the fact that today we can all vote – at least in civilised, democratic societies around the world. As Gaughan wrote in his lyrics,
“When you’re called for jury service,
When your name is drawn by lot
When you vote in an election
When you freely voice your thought
Don’t take these things for granted,
For dearly were they bought.”
Thomas Muir was a “champion of democracy” and a key player in the organisation of the first National Convention of the Scottish Friends of the People. The ‘Friends of the People’ or, to give its full title, 'The Society of the Friends of the People, Associated for the Purpose of Obtaining a Parliamentary Reform' was an 18th Century, political activist group, formed in London, in 1792, by Whig MPs and Lords. Although short lived, many of its members were heavily influenced by the French Revolution of 1789, the writings of Thomas Paine, and resultant Irish republican ideals.
Against that global backdrop, the 'Friends' was formed at a time when only the landed gentry had a vote in Parliament. The 'Society' sought to redress that skewed political imbalance, which depended on the aristocracy and patronage, to gain electoral enfranchisement for all, throughout the land. Patronage extended to being able to buy seats, which were consequently controlled by the wealthy, but the system was even more rotten than that. Whigs and Tories alike, tended to vote in favour of their mutual interests. In addition, many major cities, which had become flourishing centres of manufacturing, following the incipient industrial revolution, had no representation in Parliament.
Throughout 1792, 'Friends' branches were organised in many communities, the length and breadth of Great Britain. The 'Friends' in Scotland were a cosmopolitan bunch, drawn from all aspects of society. They consisted of lawyers, such as Muir, artisans and guilds-men – the likes of butchers; bakers; candlestick makers; clergymen; cobblers; farmers; tailors; tanners; and weavers. However, generally speaking, it didn't include agricultural labourers and other manual trades, such as colliers and masons, nor even spinners.
The most influential of the 'Friends' were of the Whig tendency, more open to liberal concepts of fairness than any Tory in those days. The objective of the 'Friends' was never a revolution after the manner of the French. The 'Society' didn't wish to overthrow the monarchical regime, such as was occurring in France, nor rebel after the manner of the American Colonies; it merely wanted political enfranchisement. That was in contrast to the many secret societies, like the United Irishmen and the United Scotsmen organisations, that grew up after the demise of the 'Friends'.
The 'Friends' in Scotland peaceably demonstrated their sympathies by planting Liberty Trees at market crosses. However, in June, 1792, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Edinburgh, in what became known as the King’s Birthday Riots. The mob spent three days rioting, during which it burned effigies of the much disliked Home Secretary, Robert Dundas, and tried to burn down the Lord Advocate's house. A lot of the propaganda leading to those riots was written by James Tytler, whom Muir defended on a charge of sedition, a case that led to Muir himself being so charged.
It was disturbances of that nature that caused the Government concern, believing as it did that revolution was a real possibility. Consequently, as a result of the seemingly popular support for radical reform, the Government began to restrict freedom of speech and made it a crime, for example, to distribute copies Paine's 'The Rights of Man'. Throughout the riots, however, the 'Friends' officially condemned the disturbances and threatened to expel anyone joining the rioters.
By November, 1792, there were eighty-seven branches of the 'Friends' in Britain. Some southern societies were similar in composition to those in Scotland, particularly the 'London Correspondence Club' formed as early as January, 1792. In Scotland, there were many 'Friends' branches, such as the 'Associated Friends of the Constitution of the People' (Glasgow), the 'Sons of Liberty and Friends of Man' (Partick), the 'Perth Society for Parliamentary Reform', and the 'Friends of the People Society of Edinburgh'. In July, 1792, Muir and farmer, William Skirving, established the 'Scottish Association of the Friends of the People', bringing the branches under one umbrella organisation.
The first national general convention of the 'Friends' in Scotland was held on the 11th of December, 1792; its effective leader being Thomas Muir. A total of 160 delegates, including some government spies, from thirty-five branches of the 'Friends' in Scotland, met in Edinburgh. The convention was well attended by some prominent Advocates and the nobility was represented by Lord Daer. Also in attendance were the MP for Inverness, Colonel Macleod, and Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple of Fordell.
Two more general or national conventions were held by the 'Friends', the second of those, in October, 1793, being open to delegates from English branches and societies. That third convention, called 'British', wasn't attended by the Lords and lawyers, and was publicly renounced by Macleod. It was broken up by the authorities and more men were arrested and tried for sedition by a panicky Government. They were sentenced to transportation, along with Muir and Dundee's Thomas Fyshe Palmer.
That sort of persecution spelled the end for the 'Friends' societies. Hopes of peace with France gave way to the Napoleonic Wars and an ever more frightened Government continued its unprecedented increase in crackdowns on freedom of speech and persecution of radicals. In Tranent, in 1797, the army crushed an anti-conscription protest, indiscriminately killing eleven miners and wounding twelve others. The 'Friends of the People' was wound down and reform was left to the Whigs in Parliament. It wasn’t until the working class rebellions of 1819-20 that organised radicalism reappeared.