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Once Britain was actually at war with France, after 1793, reformers were, inevitably, extremists, meeting in secret and frequently binding themselves by oaths - a practice always alarming to governments. There thus developed the 'United Scotsmen' (the title imitative of the already existing 'United Irishmen') organised in local branches and district committees, meeting clandestinely, members being known only by the name of the village, town or area branch which had sent them as delegates. One focus for activity in Angus, Perthshire and Fife, was Dundee, where several radical pamphlets were produced, an exploit which caused the Rev. Thomas Fysshe Palmer to be transported for seven years, and George Mealmaker, ringleader, organiser and author, for fourteen years. Mealmaker earned the grudging admiration of the authorities who were much surprised by the excellence of the writing of which this ordinary weaver was capable.
These stern measures had their effect; and though several conspiracy trials in Glasgow, and a major outbreak of violence at Tranent, showed that discontent simmered below the surface, the reformist cause undoubtedly weakened as the war dragged on. Burns contributed some poems which attracted the disapproval of authority. He had long ago written scathingly of the Hanoverians; and had attributed the Union, which had made of Scotland 'England's province', to 'hireling traitors . . . such a parcel of rogues in a nation.' He now wrote encouragingly of the French Revolution, and contrasted the English indifference to liberty with the support felt for the cause in Scotland, in poems like 'Ode on General Washington's Birthday' and 'The Tree of Liberty'. He made in his mind a connection between the present struggle for liberty in France and the independence wars in Scottish history. His feelings prompted him to find new words to an old marching tune, reputedly played by Scots companies in the army of Joan of Arc. Using the tradition, reported by Barbour, that Bruce had delivered an inspirational address to his army at Bannockburn, Burns produced the poem, known by its opening words, 'Scots wha hae'. By themselves these words are meaningless, and those who do not read or do not wish to listen, have been quick to find fault with the verses; but for others, the antiquity of the tune and the sentiments of Burns's words combine to provide Scotland with what ought to be her obvious and unchallenged National Anthem.
The interest of craftsmen in reform was not however purely intellectual or sentimental; they had very real practical grievances too. Between 1800 and 1808, for instance, the income of handloom weavers had been halved, and their income continued to fall. In 1812 Glasgow weavers conducted a strike which lasted for nine weeks, an event which prompted the government and local powers in the city, to create a network of spies, informers and agents provocateurs to guard against any recurrence of such disturbing events.
In the aftermath of the war which ended in 1815, conditions of many workers worsened, and in both England and Scotland reformist agitation revived. In part men sought improvements in their wages and conditions, but more and more they were coming to the conclusion that only political power and friendly legislation could offer them reasonable future prospects. The 'United Scotsmen', back in the 1790s, had demanded votes for all men, votes by ballot, annual General Elections, and the payment of MPs; and these demands were the basis of the political agitation which grew during the immediate post-war years. A 'National Committee of Scottish Union Societies' had emerged during the 1812 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'. The Unions were territorial, not occupational; they were not trade unions, but area branches of the national organisation. In fact the National Committee and its organisation in the country gives every indication of being a revival of the 'United Scotsmen'.
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