There aren’t many memorials to protests or episodes of resistance out there. There are even fewer statues of named women. So when I learnt that there was a memorial to protesters killed by troops in 1797 in Tranent, a small town in East Lothian not far from Edinburgh, I was keen to go and check it out. When I found out that the memorial took the form of a statue of Jackie (Joan) Crookston, one of the leaders of the protests, I was even more excited.
Now a commuter town for Edinburgh, at the end of the 1700s Tranent was a mining town. In the late 1790s, war with revolutionary France was putting a strain on British resources, and the government decided to introduce conscription. Scotland had never been subjected to conscription before, and it did not go down well. In June 1797, the Militia Act was enacted, with the goal of raising a force of 6000 men from the coastal areas of Scotland to protect ports, particularly on the Forth and Clyde. Local schoolmasters were given the task of making a list of every able-bodied man between the ages of 19 and 23. A ballot would then be used to decide who to call up. Scots took issue with many aspects of the process, including the fact that wealthier men could pay a replacement if they were called up, whilst the poorest had no choice.
In late August, when attempts were made to start drawing up the lists of eligible men, resistance erupted across Scotland. This ranged from peaceful protests and petitions to rioting. The authorities made attempts to reassure people that the number of men required was small, and that they would not be forced to leave Scotland, but eventually troops and militia were brought from England to suppress the resistance. Things had calmed down by the end of October, possibly because of the unequivocal and forceful response of the government. Eighty people faced charges, and eight were sentenced to transportation for their role in the resistance.
The resistance to the Militia Act in Tranent was not unusual, but the brutality with which it was suppressed was. A meeting was arranged in Tranent to oppose the Militia Act on 29th of August. A march led by the town drummer the evening before toured other nearby villages encouraging people to attend the meeting. At a meeting in one of these villages, Prestonpans, a letter was written to present to the authorities expressing opposition to the Act. Names were signed to the letter in a circle, so the leader could not be identified.
As the crowd gathered in Tranent the next day, the authorities were ready for them. A troop of Cinque Port Light Dragoons recently arrived from England were joined by local volunteers and yeomanry. Reinforcements from nearby Musselburgh were also called to attend. Estimates of the size of the crowd vary from 2,000 to 5,000, but they were determined to protest peacefully. Despite the crowd on the streets, a meeting was held in a local pub to compile the local conscription lists. The letter from Prestonpans was submitted to this meeting. Stones were thrown at the pub, and soldiers brought in to try and calm the situation down only increased tensions. The situation rapidly became a riot, and the troops were ordered to fire on the crowd. William Hunter was the first person to be killed, but others were also followed as the military run amok in and around Tranent, indiscriminately attacking people whether or not they had been present at the protest (not that this made it ok for them to be killed). Five people were killed in Tranent, and seven others in the surrounding area. Many others were injured. Thirty-six civilians were arrested on suspicion of taking part in the riot. None of the soldiers were even reprimanded for the slaughter, let alone charged.
Nowadays, as buses trundle along the main road past a few shops and pubs, it is hard to imagine such violence taking place in Tranent. The only reminder is the Massacre of Tranent monument, by Scottish sculptor David Annand, which was unveiled in Civic Square in the town centre in 1995. It shows Jackie (Joan) Crookston from nearby Pencaitland, and a young child. Both are walking forward, Jackie striding with a clenched fist raised in the air and a fierce expression on her face as she looks back over her shoulder. She is holding a drum under her left arm, which she apparently used to lead the crowd during the protest. Jackie was one of the twelve killed by the cavalry, found shot dead in a field just outside the town.
I haven’t been able to find out anything about why the monument was commissioned, or why Jackie was chosen to represent everyone that was affected by the indiscriminate violence on that day (if anyone has any information, please share it with me!). Nevertheless, it is a fitting monument to a largely forgotten tragic moment in Scotland’s history.
Sources and Further Reading
Bambery, Chris. A People’s History of Scotland (Second Edition). London: Verso, 2018.
MacAskill, Kenney. Radical Scotland: Uncovering Scotland’s Radical History from the French Revolutionary Era to the 1820 Rising. London, Biteback, 2020.
Wikipedia. “Massacre of Tranent. Last modified 21st November 2021, accessed 7th December. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_Tranent