THE general perception of Dunfermline as a town in the Victorian period is often generated from writings in connection with its prodigal son, Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie wrote nostalgically about his ancient home town in his autobiography: “Fortunate in my ancestors I was supremely so in my birthplace. Where one is born is very important, for different surroundings and traditions appeal to and stimulate different latent tendencies in the child. Ruskin truly observes that every bright boy in Edinburgh is influenced by the sight of the castle. So is the child of Dunfermline, by its noble abbey, the Westminster of Scotland, founded early in the 11th century (1070) by Malcolm Canmore and his Queen Margaret, Scotland’s patron saint. The ruins of the great monastery and of the palace where kings were born still stand, and there, too, is Pittencrieff Glen, embracing Queen Margaret’s shrine and the ruins of King Malcolm’s Tower, with which the old ballad of Sir Patrick Spens begins: ‘The King sits in Dunfermline tower, Drinking the bluid red wine.’
“The tomb of The Bruce is in the centre of the abbey, St Margaret’s tomb is near, and many of the ‘royal folk’ lie sleeping close around. Fortunate, indeed, the child who first sees the light in that romantic town.”
Of his early family life Carnegie was equally nostalgic. He wrote of how as a boy he crawled between the legs of a large crowd of weavers gathered at the Abbey Pend to see his father address a large outdoor meeting. Of how he was proud to say that he had an uncle (Tom Morrison) who ‘went to jail to vindicate the rights of public assembly.’ And again how a different uncle, George Lauder was his idol, a man whose influence over him he said was ‘inestimable.’
Anyone who has visited the historic quarter of the town described in this rosy reflection—written by the richest man in the world at the time—will recognise the idyllic picture he paints of the ‘romantic town,’ but as we have now learned in earlier parts of this series, the Dunfermline of 1850 was a much more violent place than the one Carnegie described and the events that Carnegie’s uncles were involved in—particularly the petition to free the mob leader Black—weren’t the principled acts of the gentlemen that he recalled.
Carnegie was born in Dunfermline on November 25, 1835 and left for the US on May 17, 1848 aged 12.
Of course I have much more experience of life in the Burgh of Dunfermline than Andrew Carnegie had. I grew up from the age of four in Rosyth—a southern village that was part of the burgh—just off Castleandhill Road where the Irish were herded before entering the Royal Burgh of Inverkeithing.
My first marital home in 1970 was a flat in the ‘Gusset,’the junction between New Row, Netherton, and Bothwell St and my next home was in Baldridgeburn, both scenes of the 1850 Irish evictions.
My local pub for many years was the Bruce Tavern in Bruce Street, scene of the Saturday night affray in 1850.
Today my favourite walk, which I try to do once a week, takes me to boyhood haunts on the Fife Coastal Path, from Cruickness to Carlin Knowes quarry where the Irish evictees were herded.
When I first read of the Irish evictions I walked the 10 kilometres from my home just off Townhill Road Dunfermline to North Queensferry and tried to imagine the horrors that the evicted Irish suffered on the same road, but also reflected on the many times I had walked this road in my youth. My memories were mostly very happy ones, but I also mused on the anti-Irish nature of the area that didn’t leave with the navvies in 1850, and is still with us today.
If I were to write a truthful autobiography of my childhood in Rosyth, it would begin by recalling how as a young boy of nine or ten in the early 1950s I was confronted while bird-nesting in open countryside at the Bell-Knowes—on the route the Sheriff-substitute took in a droshky to overtake the mob—by a total stranger of my own age, who ran up to me thrusting his face into mine and shouting ‘lie down and grunt ya Fenian c***!’
I was stunned and baffled by this rural racism. I was a Yorkshire-born orphan, the foster-son of a Sunderland couple and knew nothing of Ireland. But this young genealogist thug was able to attribute Irish ancestry to me long before I ever knew of it, probably by dint of the Catholic school I attended, or perhaps my Irish surname. His interest in me—for I had none in him—as an incomer to the village must have been driven by bigotry and I later found out he was from an Orange Order family.
My primary school at that time was St John and St Columba’s, which was sited adjacent to the Catholic church of that name at Rosyth crossroads.
My secondary school was St Margaret’s, Dunfermline up to a time in my 13th year when my foster parents took me out of it and put me to King’s Road School, Rosyth. The reason for this move was, they said, to enhance my chances of getting an apprenticeship in HM Naval Dockyard Rosyth, as King’s Road had a good success record in the entrance exams for there.
I attended Mass every Sunday and all holy days of obligation as my devout Catholic foster parents insisted on this, but as a known Catholic entering a Protestant school I didn’t experience any great hostility. Some few pupils made snide remarks and I perceived some hostility from one or two teachers, but most were fair and the ones that counted, the Head and the School Padre went out of their way to welcome me.
During my years as a teenager working in the industrial setting of Rosyth Dockyard I became more aware of anti-Irish/Catholic sentiment, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. The banter was often quite barbed, but was mostly humorous and a two-way thing that normally centred on football.
However there were times, in social settings when drink had been taken, when I would be involved in heated arguments or even fist fights and no matter the subject that caused these, my adversary would often resort to calling me a Fenian in the heat of battle. There were other words used in this sort of banter such as ‘Catholics’ or simply ‘them.’
In short I found that I was pigeon-holed into a category that was not the mainstream, by being identified as Irish/Irish-descended and Catholic.
Why has historic racism endured?
Why is it that the anti-Irish and Catholic sentiment which flourished in Dunfermline, Fife and Scotland up to the time of the 1850 riots has continued to blight our town since then?
I have done some research into this question and believe it was propagated to some extent by the established church and some of their ministers, like The Rev Jacob Primmer (1842–1914), a bigoted parish minister in Townhill, who was hugely popular, preaching to massive crowds in Dunfermline and Cowdenbeath. To this day some Townhill residents still fondly refer to their parish church as ‘The Old Primmer.’
Primmer’s main theme was rants against Catholics and the Irish, which can be found in his writings that include such
literary gems as Which is the Greater Evil—Rome or Rum? And the Cure for Both and Pastor Jacob Primmer in Rome. The ‘racially inferior’ Irish were characterised as lazy and criminal, drunkards who practiced idolatry in a religion headed by a Pope, who was the anti-Christ personified.
Primmer fell foul of the Church of Scotland on doctrinal grounds, but was not reprimanded for his books’ bigoted views. Not surprising really, as his views on this were in the mainstream, as evidenced by the 1922 Presbytery resolution to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland calling for the expulsion of the Irish, who they thought were diluting the purity of Scots blood.
The church’s eventual, but welcome, apology—for what it called ‘racism akin to Enoch Powell’s, Rivers of Blood speech’—when it came in 2002, was as brief as it was belated.
While the established church must shoulder some blame, I believe another, and probably the main cause fuelling historic anti-Irish racism and anti-Catholic bigotry to this day is the Orange Order.
Confirmation of my belief in this was literally brought home to my front door one Saturday morning a few years back as I relaxed in the front room of my house in a quiet terrace in Dunfermline. Suddenly my peace was shattered by the booming beat of a Lambeg drum from a flute band escorting a parade of Apprentice Boys from Townhill, with guests from a Merseyside lodge, on their way to join a major walk.
This parade was led by the same man who refused me sight of the Masonic records of the St John’s Lodge of Dunfermline, held in the Carnegie Library.
I understand the pride an Orangeman has in the sash his father wore. Respect for our ancestors is a noble sentiment. What I don’t get is how an anachronistic organisation that feared a Popish plot to dominate them in days of yore can endure for centuries after the threat is no more.
The hundreds of year-round Orange walks in Scotland to me are simply displays of triumphalism by those of a superiority mindset. They are hugely damaging, and leave a trail of bitterness, division and often bloodshed in their wake.
Wouldn’t it be a good thing if, like the Church of Scotland did, the Orange Order apologised for their past bigotry, dropped RC bans and celebrated their heritage once a year? If they did they’d go from pariah to popular.
Another recent incident, that tells me that bigotry is alive and well in Dunfermline was when Dunfermline Athletic FC traveled to Celtic Park in a League Cup tie in August 2019 and a section of their fans, seated next to the family enclosure, kept up chants about Celtic being involved in paedophilia and connected with Jimmy Savile, their manager being a sad Fenian bastard and them only signing in the chapel.
Setting the record straight
Today, a history researcher looking into Dunfermline’s past would find much about the Meal Riots in the late 18th century and the Weavers’ Riots in the first half of the 19th century, but little about the ethnic cleansing of the Irish in 1850.
One exception to this omission—or Omertá?—being Alexander Stewart in his 1899 Reminiscences of Dunfermline. But rather worse than the Omertá is the current state of play.
The most recently published article on Dunfermline’s past in the Scottish Local History Journal, of 2008, is by a Carnegie Dunfermline Central librarian, Chris Neale, which re-writes history to give Dunfermline’s anti-Irish character a whitewash.
In Neale’s otherwise good piece, which ‘looks at some instances of violence on the streets of Dunfermline in the 1840s’ he provides much detail about the town’s riotous history and trouble between the locals, their employers, and the troops stationed there to keep order in the 1840s, but little—only 57 of 5509 words—about the ethnic cleansing of the Irish in 1850.
And to make matters worse, his cameo errs in stating that the Irishmen killed a young native weaver, when in fact the opposite was the case.
In fairness to the author, when I pointed this out to him he did admit his error and apologise for it, he also excused his lack of a citation for his erroneous claim stating that in his ‘own discussion of the ‘Irish’ events’ he treated them ‘as something of a coda to the turmoil of the 1840.’
Though some would like to downplay them, these anti-Irish events were certainly not trivial, to be used as a book end. In fact they were by far the most violent of all the Dunfermline riots. They involved mass brutality towards all Irish born citizens, as opposed to the singling out of individual factory owners, strike-breakers and premises.
It’s as if today’s history books either overlook the Irish evictions of 1850 or are being written with a revisionist agenda that relegates the major ethnic cleansing of 1850 to a minor skirmish on the part of the locals against a murderous Irish mob.
This echoes the newspapers of 1851 reporting the trial, which was described as the Irish Navvy Riots, at which no native inhabitants were found guilty of assault and housebreaking—as distinct from mobbing and rioting—thus
trivialising their crimes.
I think there is a need to set the record straight, and hope that this series on the 1850 ethnic cleansing of the Irish Catholics from Dunfermline will go some way towards this.
The way forward
My subject matter is a negative one and may cause distress to the good people of Dunfermline who have no bias against their fellow Irish-descended or Catholic citizens, but they should take heart from some redeeming features in what is generally a sorry tale.
Some native Scots, like the weavers who bravely stood up to the mob to protect their Irish workmates, the Sheriff-Substitute, Charles Shirreff, Procurator Fiscal, John Macdonald and Inverkeithing’s Provost James Spittal, who recognised the injustice of the cruel expulsion of their fellow citizens and with the help of the Queensferry quarrymen put a stop to it, were exemplary. These were good people and should be lauded for their actions.
My firm belief is that the vast majority of Scots today are like them, and have moved with the times, but there are still a sizeable minority who have inherited their forefathers’ anti-Irish and Catholic biases. They are the ones who are likely to applaud, if not take part in, the annual Orange Order parades in Dunfermline.
These are parades that you won’t see advertised on any tourist information websites, nor will you read much about them in the newspapers. Like the Irish evictions of the past we don’t like to talk about them!
To me, this exemplifies the hypocrisy whereby we Scots don’t record our own faults and present a ‘wha’s like us,’ tolerant facade to the world, and are quick to condemn racism in others.
Recently, however, there has been a welcome and honest reappraisal of Scotland’s past ills, in particular the profits Scots made in the West Indies and the Americas from plantations using slave labour, which brought so much prosperity to our country. Plaques explaining the true story of how previously venerated Scots came by their wealth are now becoming commonplace.
The Black Lives Matter campaign has also seen progress in matters of racial discrimination, but this Glasnost doesn’t seem to have extended to reach the Irish and Irish-Scots. But surely, Irish lives matter too?
I firmly believe that until we honestly examine our past faults as well as the present ones, we will see a continuation of the anti-Irish racism and anti-Catholic bigotry, which apologists often excuse as sectarianism limited to football, but which is in fact Scotland’s dirty little secret, one that permeates all levels of society.
While examples of the workmanship of the Irish navvies who built the Stirling and Dunfermline railway still stand today in mute testimony of their skills, there is no memorial to those Irish who suffered, such as the old pedlar Peter Kelly who died following the events of 1850.
Today, it is time to put matters right and to that end I petitioned Fife Council to have a plaque erected at Carlin Knowes Quarry on the Fife Coastal Path to mark the vile and violent expulsion of the decent Irish families who were forced from their Dunfermline homes and corralled there, and the honourable local officials who, with the help of the Queensferry quarrymen, put an end to it.
Such a memorial is desirable and the location appropriate as it would mark the start point of the journey from North Queensferry back to Dunfermline taken by the evicted, beaten, weary, Irish immigrants. This journey took them on the same road walked by another immigrant, the Hungarian born, Saxon Princess, Margaret of Wessex—later Queen of Scotland then Saint Margaret—in 1068.
Margaret’s journey is commemorated by St Margaret’s Stone at a spot just south of Dunfermline where she was reputed to have taken a rest. Wouldn’t it be fitting to commemorate the Irish evictees at the other end of the road in North Queensferry, a town named after Queen Margaret who established a ferry there?
In this process I developed my thoughts on the location and aims of a memorial plaque since contacting local groups, and realised that the events of 1850 had two phases—the evictions in Dunfermline and the halting of them in North Queensferry. These events deserve separate memorials—one at Queensferry and one at Dunfermline.
North Queensferry’s Community Council shared this view and at their 2022 AGM voted by 3-2 in favour of having a memorial there, and I am pleased to say I purchased and fixed a memorial plaque on a large boulder on the Forth Coastal Path at Carlin Knowes Quarry (above).
I still hold out hope that the Dunfermline Memorial might be erected at the Tower Burn Viaduct at Buffies Brae. Watch this space!
Tom Minogue is an Irish citizen living in Scotland, as well as an investigative writer and campaigner