The Burghead Riots and the Hopeman Martyrs
Norman Thompson - as published in the 2022 Moray Field Club Bulletin
2022 marks the 175th Anniversary of events which arose from the catastrophically bad harvest of 1846 when potato blight and failure of the wheat crop led to widespread famine throughout both Ireland and Scotland. While the worst deprivations were in Ireland and the Western Isles, Moray did not escape the shortages, and although some grain had been harvested its scarcity led to widespread anger when John Allan, an Elgin grain merchant, attempted to ship shiploads of oatmeal for export to England using Burghead harbour.
On Monday 25th January 1847 John Allan sought to load a ship called James and Jessie with 200 bolls of oatmeal which was stored in a warehouse he owned on the quayside of Burghead harbour. This was due to fetch around 32 shillings per boll in southern markets. A party of protesters, angry at such a cargo being exported when many inhabitants of Moray were near starvation, confronted the harbourmaster and demanded that loading should cease. They were backed up by a party of fishermen who had marched from Hopeman where the downturn in fishing was causing even more acute food shortage. On their protests having no avail, the mob mocked appeals for reasonableness from John Allan They turned angry and threw stones at those in authority and broke their windows, while the women unhitched the horses from their carts, and the Burghead harbourmen downed tools. The police were called, allowing the harbourmaster and the police superintendent between them to load the James and Jessie with some effort.
The following day matters got worse and two Burghead artisans, a cooper called Angus Davidson and a shoemaker James Falconer, no doubt inspired by the recently initiated Chartist movement which had held meetings in Elgin and Forres, roused the protesters to even more violent action. Attempts by Allan to load a second ship Ceres with100 bolls of oatmeal were intercepted, while the padlocks on James and Jessie were broken and the women started unloading its cargo back into the warehouse. John Allan’s house in Elgin was stoned and was the subject of an attempted arson attack.
Cosmo Innes, the Sheriff of Elginshire as it was then known, was hastily summoned north from Edinburgh where, like several other northern Sheriffs, he combined this post with an extensive legal practice. He set about recruiting special constables from the better-off citizenry, this with some difficulty as these did not relish taking part in class warfare and in any case had a good deal of sympathy with the hungry mobs. Eventually the Sheriff was able to lead a party of 60 or so special constables on the 27th January, but these were beaten back with stones and missiles by an even larger mob, and the Sheriff and his party were forced into an ignominious retreat back to Elgin. Worse humiliation followed as he was forced to open Elgin jail and release John Lawrence, the attempted arsonist At this point the Sheriff decided to call in the military but only 50 soldiers were available at Fort George. These duly skirmished with the rioters with one soldier losing an ear following a blow with a lug spade. Within the following few days urgent reinforcements from the 76th Regiment arrived from Edinburgh in a gunboat called Cuckoo and a chartered paddle steamer Bonnie Dundee. Shots fired off Burghead from the Cuckoo were a warning for what could be in store, and by Monday 1st February the James and Jessie was reloaded.
Not content with this vengeance Cosmo Innes set about a massive sweep of suspected insurrectionists and sympathisers, not just in Burghead and Hopeman, but also in Lossiemouth, Findhorn and Garmouth where protests had also taken place. In Garmouth, as in Burghead, ships of grain were unloaded back into warehouses. It was not the case that people wanted to misappropriate the grain, rather they sought to have it remain in Moray for sale at a reasonable price of, say, 24 shillings per boll in order to replenish a food supply chain so severely depleted that families all over the county were on the point of dying from starvation. There were no recorded occurrences of theft.
Many Individuals suspected of rioting or unlawful acts against property were rounded up, including three fishermen from Hopeman, John Main, John Young and Daniel Sutherland, all vouched for by Rev. David Waters, the Free Church minister of Burghead and Hopeman, as being of good, moral, church-attending character. They were immediately jailed in Elgin, then on 22 March they were tried at the High Court in Edinburgh on charges of rioting and committing assault by the effusion of blood and serious injury to a Sheriff. In spite of pleading guilty they were sentenced to seven years deportation. The Burghead men, Davidson and Falconer, got off with prison sentences.
There is a tailpiece, though. Three Hopeman women. Mary Jack (wife), Margaret Main and Isabella Sutherland (mothers) were determined to present a petition to Queen Victoria to ask for clemency. They discovered that the Queen was taking a holiday in a secret retreat in Ardverikie Castle on the south shore of Loch Laggan, about 8 miles from Dalwhinnie. The three women made their livings by selling fish from creels on their backs as they trekked around Moray and were no doubt quite physically fit. Nevertheless their 80 mile journey on foot undertaken in 3 days was a considerable feat. They managed to inveigle a boatman into transporting them across the loch to the castle, and although they did not obtain the audience with the Queen which they sought, they did manage to present their case to Earl Grey, the Colonial Secretary, who regularly escorted the Queen when she travelled away from London. As a result of deliberation in high places the Hopeman men’s sentences were commuted to a year in prison.
Food riots were happening all over Scotland at this time and similar sequences of events – riots involving farmers and corn traders versus the common folk, failed attempts at control by the pitifully small local police forces, grain-laden carts sabotaged and overturned, Sheriffs’ recruitment of reluctant professional men as special constables followed by pleas for military assistance, arrests and trials – happened all around the Moray Firth coast at towns such as Inverness, Beauly, Dingwall, Invergordon, Avoch, Cromarty and all the way north to Wick. Anyone who beiieves that the Moray Firth coast in the 1840s was a quiet, peaceful backwater needs to think again! What made Burghead and Hopeman special was their role as the first scene of such disturbances around the Moray Firth, and added to this the determination of the three petitioning women. It therefore seems unfortunate that there is no plaque or memorial either to the three lads who took such steps in desperation to head off the starvation looming for their families and communities, nor to the three dogged and courageous women who made such an epic journey to fight against gross Injustice.
Fuller details of this and what happened in the other Moray coast ports can be found in the excellent volume ‘Insurrection : Scotland’s Winter Famine’ by James Hunter, publ. Birlinn 2019 ISBN 978-1-78027-822-0.