When the Scottish Reform Act was finally passed into law in 1832, none were more jubilant than the folk of Dundee.  Known as a ‘radical toon’, Dundee is said to have been of significant help to the cause of Reform.  Once the news had hit the town, it quickly spread to the Radicals, who prepared to celebrate with an ‘illumination’.  An illumination was the preferred way to celebrate events, and involved lighting up pubs and homes until they were as bright as they could be.  Usually, gunpowder would be ignited in the streets to add further illumination and excitement.

The Reform Act sought to change the way the landscape of politics and voting was to be decided, so, as you could imagine, many of the self-appointed burgh officials weren’t particularly keen on the new legislative changes.  This being said, there was no “official” celebration of the Act – the illumination celebration was very much a public affair.  The weekend proceeding the news of the Act’s passing was one of excitement, happiness and a great deal of fun.  It was the end of June, and a perfect time for an outdoor celebration.  Pubs and Inns took part, helping to light up areas of the centre as people partied into the early hours.

Despite all the revelry, some believed that this party was not quite up to the standard of such a prominent event, and preparations were soon under way for a party on Monday night, much bigger and brighter than the first.  Arguments against allowing this new party to go ahead were heard by the Town Council, but it was decided to allow the celebrations to continue without interruption unless things got out of control.  Perhaps, already sensing their loosening grip on the city, the Town Council agreed purely to avoid a rebellious riot.  Whatever they were thinking, nobody could have foretold the events that soon unfolded.

Monday certainly lived up to its hype.  The hills of Fife burned with celebratory fire as Dundee’s harbour was festooned with sailing vessels covered in flags, illuminated by a multitude of buildings and fires all the way into the centre of town.  Still in need of more illumination, a tar barrel was placed inside and old boat and the barrel set alight.  From there, the burning boat was hauled up Union Street to the corner of Nethergate as people whooped and cheered, shooting pistols into the air.  Whilst it all seems a bit crazy to us, this was just how our ancestors partied!

The atmosphere was said to have been one of happiness and relative peace as the fire was topped up and the boat pulled in a circle through the Nethergate, Tay Street, Overgate and then High Street, nearby where the Town House stood at this time.  As the party roared into the latter part of the evening, people began to disperse – it was Monday night, after all, and many would have had work in the morning.  As late evening turned to night, things took an unexpected turn that had disastrous consequences.

The Police Force, alongside Special Constables, commandeered the fire, pouring water on it to extinguish not only the flames, but the party, too.  By this point, it is estimated that there were still around 200 people enjoying the party, which had, by all accounts, been fairly incident-free.  As people tried to prevent their fun from being stopped, it is alleged officers handled the revellers somewhat roughly.

This did not go down well with the people of Dundee, and they turned from party animals into an angry mob, pelting the Police with sticks and stones, forcing them away from the fire.  The sudden disruption saw approximately 40 people arrested and put into the cells overnight; the party now well and truly over.  In the morning, almost everyone was let away by the Justices, with the exception of three men whom the Justices were confident had assaulted Police Officers the night before.

Many people took objection to this, and, as news spread of the three men’s detainments, crowds began to gather outside the Town House.  It did not take long for things to get as rowdy as they had the previous evening; crowds threw rocks, stones and threats at the doors of the Town House, but the Justices refused to budge on their position.  In scenes that echoed those of less than 24 hours before, a flaming boat was heaved from the harbour once again and placed against the doors of the Town House.  Here, the story seems to take an unlikely turn which was instrumental in what was to become total chaos.  It is said that when one of the Justices went to the Police Offices to release the men and quell any more tension, the key to the cells could not be found.

The already-mad crowd became as inflamed as the fires they had set and tore along to the Police Offices filled with rage.  Grabbing a thick plank of wood, they relentlessly battered at the locked doors of the Police Office until they finally yielded.  As the doors flew open, anyone who wasn’t a prisoner fled through the back doors, fearing for their lives.  The mob, by now completely uncontrollable, released the prisoners and began tearing the place apart.  The office itself was completely destroyed, with everything that could possibly be removed taken into the street and set alight.

Meanwhile, some of the men had broken into the Superintendent’s house, smashing all his windows, destroying his belongings and throwing things out into the street before attempting to set the house on fire.  Thankfully they didn’t succeed, but destroyed a grocery owned by another Police Officer on their way back into the centre.  In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Dundee was still at the hands of the rioters.  With not enough officers to suppress the mobbing men, Police presence was non-existent and reinforcements had been called in from Perth in the form of the 78th Highland Regiment.

The Lord-Lieutenant of the County at the time, the Earl of Airlie arrived on Wednesday morning, a few hours before the arrival of the 78th Highland Regiment, in an attempt to try and bring about some peace and order.  Amidst the burnt rubble and wreckage of what used to be the Police Office, he stood talking to the angry mob as they continued to shout at him and throw things at him from the charred, cooling remains of the fire.

Surprisingly, things took an unexpected turn, and the mob seemed to eventually warm to the Earl and began to settle down.  The 78th Highland Regiment made their presence very well known that day and night, just in case it all got a bit rowdy again, but it seemed that a 2 day riot was enough for any one person, and the streets fell quiet.  Although many people, including Police Officers were hurt, there appears to be no mention of any deaths as a result of the riot, which is unusual considering how out of hand it got.

7 men were eventually singled out and tried for the outbreak; the three original prisoners who had been detained for the first attack on Police Officers, and 4 others who had been identified as being involved in the jail-break and destruction of the Police Office.  The first 3 were lucky; Thomas Kettle, James Barnet and John Jolly were sentenced to 6 months in Dundee Jail after pleading guilty to rioting, but the other 4 pleaded not guilty, but were found guilty anyway.  James Findlay and John Tomlinson were sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay for 14 years.  17-year old George Haggart was sentenced to transportation for 7 years.

In returning their guilty verdict, the jury had recommended mercy for the 4th accused, watchmaker James Findlay.  It was unclear his level of involvement, and his alibi was more credible than the others, but they were still certain he had something to do with it, however minor.  He was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment in Bridewell Prison.

 Dark Dundee Walking Tours 

Want to hear more stories like this?

Join us on one of our walking tours.

Find out more and book tickets

In 16th century Scotland, a series of riots began to unfold along the East coast. Believed to have started in Fife, the riots quickly escalated and involved hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of angry protestors. Shipping ports were raided by weapon-wielding locals who assaulted crew members and destroyed grain-exporting ships. Granary deposits, warehouses and stores were broken into and their contents stolen as dozens of men, women and children fought for their ill-gotten supplies. The reasons behind the riots were not so much about the cost of grain, but more to do with the perceived shortage of it, as we continued to export it in massive quantities, often leaving very little for those at home.

The fact that the riots around this time featured in predominantly Jacobean-supported towns and burghs lends itself to the opinion that perhaps the riots were not so much about the fear of food shortages, and perhaps had more to do with the idea that people were opposed to trading our supplies with those who did not support the Jacobite cause. Whilst there is no evidence to directly support this, it is a widely-believed theory, and one which casts a different light on the proceedings at that time.

Anyone standing in the way of the rioters were beaten, and, in some extreme cases, killed. In Dundee, alarmed traders and officials called upon armed forces to attempt to quell the rabble after extensive damage was caused to ships, storehouses and shops. In their efforts to gain the upper hand, troops fired upon the rioters, causing at least one reported death. The Riot Act had been formed, declaring that any group of twelve or more people, deemed to be unlawfully assembled, were required to disperse or face punitive action.

Meal riots were not uncommon, and were not restricted to Scotland, hence the introduction of the Act in 1714. However, the proclamation of the Act itself was not without peril, as it required local officials to read aloud the conditions of the Act to the rioters, giving them one hour to disband or face punishment of death. The problems with the implementation of Act were many: in the first instance, it was difficult to find officials who were brave enough in the smaller districts to stand and read the Act to the rioters. Secondly, trying to shout over a screaming, rioting rabble of people was sometimes impossible. Thirdly, the part of the Act which was to be read was sometimes never read in full, allowing for those convicted to appeal their case and return to their communities without charge. Adding to this, and probably the most frustrating aspect for those trying to police the riots was that it was very difficult to round up every single suspected rioter, meaning that many walked away without apprehension or charge.

Attempts were made, however, to make “examples” of some of the apprehended rioters, and those unfortunate enough to be sentenced were “transported” out of the country for years at a time. In more extreme cases, some were never allowed to return. It must be noted that capital sentencing was never actually carried out, despite repeated threats of the death sentence. Thomas Gilkie, an influential Dundee rioter, along with others from surrounding areas found himself stripped of his burgess-ships and was banned from trading within his locality.

The wording that had to be read out to the assembled gathering was as follows:

“Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the Act made in the first year of King George the First for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies.

God Save the King!”

What made matters worse was that, if, for any reason, the paper on which the Act was written was stolen or damaged during the reading, it was deemed that the Act was never read, and the rioting continued.
To this day many jurisdictions that have inherited the tradition of English common law and Scots law still employ statutes that require police or other executive agents to deliver an oral warning, much like the Riot Act, before an unlawful public assembly may be forcibly dispersed.

Because the authorities were required to read the proclamation that referred to the Riot Act before they could enforce it, the expression “to read the Riot Act” entered into common language as a phrase meaning “to reprimand severely”, with the added sense of a stern warning. The phrase remains in common use in the English language.

On 4th December, 1816, there was yet another meal riot in Dundee, described at the time by Sheriff Duff as “one of the greatest in modern times”. For four days, a mob raged through the town, robbing and pillaging as they went, causing untold damage to people and property.