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Poor Harvest causes Riot

In 1772 wet weather and poor harvests plunged the good folk of Perth into sore straits for grain. Particularly during the last fortnight of the year meal was exceedingly scarce and, as a consequence, there was a good deal of unrest among the citizens.

George Penny, in his “Traditions of Perth,” tells us that in those days there were three local characters who were particularly adept at promoting riots.

One of them was a baker, John Wilson. He was tall and thin, “with a cadaverous visage; knock-kneed and spaly-footed; dressed in shabby clothes, with shoes without soles, and stockings ornamented with needlework up to the knees.”

Another agitator was a watchmaker, Blair Flight by name. He was said to have had “a countenance of that description which indicates a mind capable of any mean action.”

The third of this unprepossessing trio was a weaver called Ned Keillor. “Barely five feet high, he wore a short jacket with Dutch-fashioned breeches, and a large blue bonnet. He was over-fond of liquor.

“Wherever the scarcity of grain concerned anyone these three ‘rabble rousers’ could be depended upon to get up a riot.”

On December 30 a foreign ship lay loading grain at Perth harbour. Word spread swiftly among the inhabitants of the Fair City that this ship must not be allowed to leave port with its precious cargo. On the night in question the curfew was rung in Perth as usual. About 9 p.m. the streets began to fill with citizens making their various ways silently and purposefully to the harbour. Arriving there, they boarded the grain ship and set about hurling the sacks of grain ashore. Meantime the magistrates, at last becoming aware of what was going on, urgently requested help from the small military detachment then stationed in the town to enforce law and order. But by the time the Redcoats reached the harbour the rioters had disappeared and with them some 40 sacks of grain. Two stragglers were seized by the frustrated soldiers, and these were lodged in the old gaol at the foot of the High Street. On the following day the mob, “heartened by the orgies of the New Year season,” began to assemble again, this time round the prison, resolved to free the two captives. A detachment of soldiers was drawn up to face them and included artillery-men, who loaded their guns with shot and awaited the command to fire.

The rioters began hostilities by bombarding the soldiers with stones, which lay conveniently to hand on George Street, the newly constructed access road to Perth Bridge. In the midst of the hubbub Provost Stewart gallantly proceeded to read the Riot Act. But he did not give the order to fire. Instead he released the two prisoners, thus conceding total victory to the delighted rioters. Emboldened by their success, and eager for more triumph the mob set out for Elcho Castle, then the residence of a corn-factor called Donaldson, where it was rumoured a great hoard of corn was stored.

Donaldson had prudently taken the precaution of hiring a guard consisting of twelve soldiers, to protect his life and property. Unfortunately the noisy approach of the excited Perth mob intimidated the soldiers, who had been supplied with only a very few rounds of ammunition. So, deeming discretion the better part of valour, they retired speedily, leaving Elcho Castle to its fate. The mob began to wreck the building, but before the destruction was total they discovered the store wherein was stored a great quantity of grain. This Donaldson promised them would be delivered to Perth markets without delay. Having secured another victory, the rioters withdrew, highly delighted with the success of their campaign.

After suffering several more of these violent excursions, the Perth magistrates came to their senses and sent to Linlithgow, and the military depot there, for aid to restore law and order. A record of the times notes:
“One nightfall, to the consternation of the Perth rioters, a troop of dragoons rode briskly into Perth. And for the time being, there were no further disturbances in the city.

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