Friday, 27 November 2009


A Man’s a Man for a’ that’.
Ye see yon birkie ca’d ‘a lord’,
Wha struts an’ stares, an’ a’ that?
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a cuif for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His riband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind,
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

Robert Burns - ‘A Man’s A Man For A' That

The term ‘radical’ literally means ‘from the root’,

and describes exactly the kind of political reform 
that the Radical movement was seeking towards
the end of the 18th century. One of the most famous
radical sympathisers in Scottish history was the poet 
Robert Burns. This is shown in what is considered by
many to be Burns' most famous song, A man’s a man
for a’ that, which encapsulates in song the radical ideas
of Tom Paine, the author of The Rights of Man. 
Burns’ notion of the independent mind, like many
others, was influenced by two very important
international events at the time: The American and 
French Revolutions. 

The American Revolution
The progress of the American Revolution, 1776-83,

was closely followed by a Scottish public with a 
growing interest in international events. Newspaper
circulation boomed as news-hungry readers followed
the disastrous progress of the war and the British
Government’s increasing incompetence. Many Scots,
whose livelihoods depended on the Atlantic trade, 
patriotically desired the revolution crushed, but with 
defeat in 1783 they became increasingly critical of
their noble leaders. With the establishment of the 
United States reformers now had a concrete example
of how a more socially progressive society could be

The French Revolution
The advent of the French Revolution in 1789 seemed

to herald a new age of Enlightenment across Europe.
As the French embraced an enlightened constitution, 
Radicals in Scotland began to demand the same. 
The Revolution was an inspiring example for
Scotland’s developing middle and working classes; 
it demonstrated that they too could participate in 
the governance of the country, that the status quo
could be changed, and that constitutions weren’t 
handed down from God but were made by men.

Radical Scotland
Liberty trees, a French revolutionary symbol, were

planted around Scotland on market crosses, and
ideas of political reform were being publicly debated.
At Edinburgh, in what became known as the King’s
Birthday Riots, thousands protested for three days
from the 4th of June, 1792. They burnt effigies of
the Home Secretary, Robert Dundas, and attempted
to burn down the Lord Advocate‘s house. Only an 
army-command to open fire on the mob managed
to suppress the riot eventually, and the authorities
worried that riot might turn to revolution.

In December 1792 a democratic organisation

called the Friends of the People was created out
of numerous Reform Societies which had emerged
across Scotland. They demanded moderate change
, to bring the mercantile middle classes into the 
governance of the country; however, change
was not forthcoming, and as Henry Dundas said:
‘It would be easier to reform Hell’. When 
events in France turned into ‘The Terror’ of 
1793, with the widespread public execution
of nobles and priests, the British Government
set out to quash the Radicalism in no uncertain

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