The Forest for the Trees: George Mealmaker and Dundee’s Radicalism

by James Barrowman

“Resistance is a necessary and moral virtue.”

George Mealmaker, The Moral and Political Catechism of Man

Despite the much-lauded epithet of the ‘Radical Toun’, tangible remnants of Dundee’s radical past are few and far between. Last year, a crowdfunded campaign led to an appreciation of the life of a socialist woman called Caroline Martyn, ten years on from the restoration of her headstone in Balgay Cemetery, long since fallen into disrepair. Martyn was a leading trade unionist in the Lancashire area and the founder of the Socialist Sunday School, yet for decades her memorial had been allowed to be subsumed by moss and the column of red Peterhead granite erected in tribute a year after her death had collapsed, cast aside a hundred yards from the burial site.

At one point, you could observe the remains of the foundations from the bombing of Farington Hall in the West End, destroyed by the suffragettes in response to ‘British tyranny’ and ‘the machinations of Asquith and company’. The bronze John Steell statues of Robert Burns and the city’s first MP, ‘radical laird’ George Kinloch in Albert Square were already somewhat overshadowed by their proximity to the private High School of Dundee, the DC Thomson offices, and the statue of Queen Victoria – even before Kinloch was included in the ‘Topple the Racists’ list of public monuments with links to slavery.

In such esteemed company, the Dundee Tree of Liberty looks to be positively flourishing, despite being only a sapling planted in memory of the original tree. Nestled between DJCAD’s Matthew and Crawford buildings, sporting a plaque and last year a focus of the Cooper Gallery’s exhibition with Ruth Ewan celebrating Dundee’s links with the 1789 French Revolution: ‘We Could Have Been Anything That We Wanted to Be and It’s Not Too Late to Change’. If Owain Jones and Paul Cloke’s contention in Tree Cultures that ‘the fate of trees is often emblematic of the wider environment’ rings true, then the history of Dundee’s Tree of Liberty can help to illuminate the nature of Dundee’s radicalism.

Dundee and the French Revolution

Original artwork by Cheryl McGregor for Heckle.

The French Revolution of 1789 won praise from several quarters of 1790s Dundee. The Dundee Whig Club praised the events in France as ‘the triumph of liberty and reason over despotism, ignorance and superstition’. Its most immediate effect was the founding of the Dundee Friends of Liberty in 1792.

The group, of which George Mealmaker and Thomas Fyshe Palmer were the most prominent members, necessarily operated under some degree of secrecy. Aside from the documents that survive, and the records of the court cases those documents compelled, it is difficult to get a picture of the full extent of their activities. Although Mealmaker and Palmer will be the focus of this article, it’s important to note that they were a part of a broader cultural context from which they could emerge.

Dundee, perhaps not yet the ‘Radical Toun’, was already the ‘Second Geneva’; reformers were able to draw upon a history of rebellion and although they fought for a very different cause, the repeated sixteenth and seventeenth century destruction of Dundee meant that a spirit of defiance already hung in the air before it was channelled for egalitarian purposes. The Friends of Liberty could win popular support in part due to the excess of the powerful in this period. In 1792, effigies of Henry Dundas were set alight in Dundee, as well as in Brechin, Aberdeen and Perth. Dundas also inspired three days of riots in Edinburgh, during which the windows of his house were panned in.

Neil Douglas, a minister in Dundee, wrote in ‘A Monitory Address to Great Britain’ in 1792: ‘There is little reason to hope that reformation will become effectual, till it began with the Great, who at present chiefly need it; for while they remain corrupt and dissipated, their conduct, like so many poisoned fountains, still emitting noxious streams, will not fail to taint the lower classes of mankind.’

The activities of the powerful within Dundee must have seemed particularly egregious to the reformers. Dundee’s town council, from this period onwards, were preoccupied with ‘little more than property management and ceremonial duties’ and could be seen walking in procession to church on Sundays, where they had an entire gallery to themselves. They were visibly elevated from the townsfolk, and they also had an uncanny ability to hold onto power.

Alexander Riddoch, The Archdeacon of the Self-Elected, held that power for over forty years. Beginning in 1776, he rose to be the town’s Provost a total of eight times – in his stead, representatives of the Nine Trades were diluted as they lost the ability to appoint their own officers.

By 1819, a report on the state of the Scottish burghs concluded that ‘the same set of persons remained almost constantly in office, though they are stated to have been neither the best qualified, nor the most respectable members of the community’. The excesses of their ceremonial duties went hand in hand with a monstrous approach to property management, where council members were charged ‘rents considerably below their fair value, and for long periods’.

It was out of this context that the Tree of Liberty grew. In November of 1792, a crowd formed at the town cross for a public meeting on the issues they were facing. Incensed, a local shoemaker named Downie, possibly linked with the Cordiners Trade, led the rabble to the Belmont grounds to select a sapling to claim as the town’s symbol of emancipation. They returned to the cross and planted the tree there, decorating it with garlands and oranges in the traditional fashion.

The townsfolk danced around the tree and lit a bonfire to light the festivities. Provost Riddoch and his colleagues looked on from the Townhouse, until to the shock of the people he emerged into the midst of the celebrations and circling the tree three times, cried out the platitude of ‘liberty and equality forever’. This appears to have been nothing but a strategy of appeasement, as before he joined the revellers he had already sent a request to Perth to provide military assistance. The troops arrived the following day, but by then the excitement had mellowed considerably.

Riddoch waited until Sunday, under the cover of the Sabbath, to have the tree removed. It was cast into the thief’s hole and imprisoned for a few days before being replanted in the Belmont grounds. He is remembered as the only public official to have had a tree arrested. This image, of a tree in chains, has indeed become emblematic of the wider environment, with resonance as a symbol of a radical nature that has been stifled and repressed. The tree was removed in 1909 to make way for the West End Academy on the Belmont grounds.

Dundee Friends of Liberty

A portrait of George Mealmaker by John Kay.

Despite being written off in parliament by Colonel Norman Macleod as only ‘the assemblage of a few boys, the eldest of whom did not exceed sixteen, to play at the game of planting the Tree of Liberty’ – these events were significant enough to illicit paranoia from the powerful, and to encourage the formation of the Dundee Friends of Liberty.

George Mealmaker, a weaver by trade, appears to have been the group’s most talented writer. His ‘Dundee Address to the Friends of Liberty’ advocating for universal suffrage, was evidently threatening enough that it led to the arrest of its printer, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, and his subsequent sedition charge and seven years transportation to Australia. The document was believed to have been ‘calculated to produce a spirit of discontent in the minds of the people against the present happy constitution and government of this country, and to rouse them up to acts of outrage and violence’.

Mealmaker testified in court that it was in fact he that authored the pamphlet, knowing well the risk of such a declaration, but it was to no avail. Mealmaker went on to author more works before his own eventual trial, 1797’s ‘The Moral and Political Catechism of Man’ remains a powerful and practical statement – not far from the kind of FAQ you could find on the website of a contemporary political organisation. I will quote a passage here that still retains its strength and potentiality:

“To a mind darkened by bigotry, and haunted by superstition, truth is too strong; its full blaze startles, confounds, and amazes, and often leads to extreme excesses. This ought always to be studiously guarded against, lest truth be branded with its dangers as well as error.”

As well as the Catechism, Mealmaker produced a detailed account of his arrest and imprisonment that was tacked on as an addendum to future editions. This document is illustrative of his defiance amidst unjust treatment and wretched conditions. It is acutely aware of the risks such attempts at reform bring: ‘To overthrow the Herculean pillars of superstition and prejudices, to cleanse out the sinks of long-gathered national corruptions, is not the work of a day, or the doings of ease.’

Mealmaker’s account does not attempt to glorify his actions or to elevate his position as a leader of the movement; he is careful to frame himself as part of a whole and only one of ‘multitudes of honest, plain-hearted, sober men’ who were ‘thrown into dungeons’ and ‘sent with the worst of felons, to the bleak and barren shores of New Holland’.

Mealmaker was detained in Arbroath, where the door of his cell was not allowed to be opened without a guard of twenty-five to thirty men. He was not permitted visitation, unless they approached the window with a guard present. Letters had to be rigorously inspected before coming in or out. Food and drink was also only to be passed through the window, and even then the prisoners were left for three days without water. They were made to sleep on the hard stone floor in damp surroundings, with no bedding or straw, even if paid for at their own expense.

Mealmaker and his comrade were kept at Arbroath for eight days. It’s remarkable that in these circumstances Mealmaker was able to write so lucidly, as some passages from the account of his imprisonment have a genuinely poetic quality: ‘You will now see to your cost, that ‘tis easier to give unlimited power and unbounded confidence in a time of delusive alarm, than to take it away when the mark is withdrawn, and the delusion ceaseth to charm.’ That may well be because the prisoners had a talent for poetry, given the inclusion of an ‘Ode to Liberty’ penned by his cellmate Robert Sands during the stay in Arbroath, which I will quote in full:

O liberty, thou darling maid,
Hear our request we do implore ye;
O grant to us thy powerful aid,
And we for ever will adore ye.
Too long has thy bright form been hid,
That form which yields the greatest pleasure;
By knaves too long has man been led,
And robb’d of thee, his only treasure.

Kings and Priests in ev’ry age Have held it as their bounded duty,
To oppose, with the most violent rage,
The smallest knowledge of they beauty.
But man at length begins to know
His own importance, and thy glory:
And all that tyrants now can do,
Will ne’er one moment stand before ye.

Without thy aid no man can live
A happy life in any station;
Thy beauties do all blessings give,
Without them mischief and vexation.
Then come, and shine in every land,
Bring peace and knowledge in thy features;
‘Tis thou that tyrants can command,
And give all blessings to the creatures.

Mealmaker, like Palmer before him, was sentenced to transportation – for fourteen years rather than seven. Those ‘bleak and barren shores’ turned out more hospitable than presumed: Palmer seemed to have operated with relative freedom for the period of his punishment and passed away on the voyage homewards, while Mealmaker’s weaving expertise meant he could rise to be an industry leader until a disastrous fire broke out in his factory and he was thrown into destitution.

Credit: Carlos Delgado, CC BY-SA 3.0

Palmer is commemorated on the Martyr’s Monument on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, alongside Thomas Muir, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald. Mealmaker’s absence from the Marty’s Monument and the lack of any real lasting memorial in his home city of Dundee has been remarked upon.

The foundation of the Martyr’s Monument was initiated by Joseph Hume in 1837, in part to suggest a line of succession between the political actors of the 1790s and Hume’s own grouping of Radical MPs. In the 1790s and early 1800s when these events were taking place, Hume was still a Tory and a key participant in the activities of the East India Company and the Second Anglo-Maratha War.

Dundee today

In our own era, attempts have been made to suggest a concatenation between the martyrs and the movement for Scottish independence, with Alex Salmond demanding a posthumous pardon for Thomas Muir and leading commemorations at the monument.

Salmond’s ill-fated Alba party did have one minor viral moment that was illuminating about the (un)popular memory of Dundee’s ‘Radical Toun’ status, when they projected their party logo onto the Caird Hall accompanied by a tweet: ‘The Caird Hall is a symbol of Dundee’s radical traditions as a city culminating in its support for Independence in 2014. Dundee can continue that radical tradition by shaking things up in this Election.’ Putting aside the fact that jute baron Sir James Caird was far from a radical, the word ‘culminating’ is a fascinating choice.

Dundee’s swelling of support for the SNP and largest margin for Yes in the 2014 referendum has led to the eclipse of the Radical epithet by a new nickname, Yes City. The tensions between those that view the emergence of the city to the SNP’s seat of power as the pinnacle of its radical traditions, and those that see the faithful continuation of that radicalism as opposition to power wherever it lies, has left the city’s political identity in an uncertain space.

Dundee has, in part, been a hotbed of radicalism over the centuries through proximity to the establishment: from King James V and Cardinal Beaton in sixteenth-century Fife, through the procession of a corrupt council in the eighteenth-century, to the wealthy industrialists of the mills and the staunch conservatism of DC Thomson. The elevation of the SNP from plucky outsiders to harbingers of the status quo has blurred these lines.

If the afterlife of Dundee’s radicalism does not survive in the independence movement, an alternative proposal suggests it can be found in the city’s art and design communities – making the present location of the tree a fitting tribute. Hugh MacDiarmid mentioned Dundee’s art and radicalism in the same breath when, amidst a damning indictment of the beating heart of ‘kailyard guff’, he found within himself two nice things to say: the city was ‘the principal stronghold of Scottish communism’ and ‘home to a struggling colony of Scottish artists’. In the early part of the twentieth century, there was indeed significant crossover between the two.

A great example is Ethel Moorhead, who trained as a painter under Alphonse Mucha in Paris and won massive praise in the Dundee art markets, now better remembered as ‘Scotland’s most radical suffragette’. DJCAD employed various artists with radical links, such as the socialist Edward Baird. Venues like the Dudhope Arts Centre and the Dundee Print Studio attempted a tandem approach which supported community-based practices and internationalist touring programmes. In the 1980s, the Dundee Resource Centre for the Unemployed facilitated experimental performance art.

The foundation of Dundee Contemporary Arts at the turn of the century was a possible point of departure, leading to the creation of a cultural enclave in the West End and centralising the art scene around the university. Marshall Anderson put forward this argument in ‘A Story of Art Development in Dundee’ for a 1999 issue of Variant:

“There has always been an unhealthy umbilical connection between art groups in Dundee and DoJ as mother figure. Such symbiosis has not assisted a truly independent artscene with sufficient cultural distance from ‘mother’ to make radical and original art.”

Given this cultural context, I must commend the Cooper Gallery and its curator Sophia Hao for producing a genuinely radical programme of events over the last few years, which has not only enriched the city’s art scene but also encouraged excitement and enthusiasm on the left. This has included The Ceremony exhibition from Phil Collins, about the relocation of a statue of Engels from Ukraine to Manchester, and Jasmina Cibic’s work on political documents in the former Yugoslavia and its accompanying 12 Hour Non-State Parade, featuring contributions from Glasgow’s Joyous Choir of refugee women and blacklisting campaigners Jake McLeod and Stuart Merchant.

Their current project ‘The Ignorant Art School: Five Sit-ins towards Creative Emancipation’, which began in the February of 2021 and will run until the end of 2023, has been incredible. Inspired by Jacques Ranciere’s Ignorant Schoolmaster, a work that advocates for a radical and paratactic, non-hierarchical approach to education, the project has sought to ‘adopt the activist tactic of occupying institutional space as a critical and creative attitude and praxis to transform the Cooper Gallery into a laboratory for radical, ethical and accessible pedagogies for the many, underscored by an economy of solidarity’.

The DCA has not quite settled into its presumed role as the beating heart of Dundee’s cultural establishment either, recently hosting a Rosa Luxemburg reading group under the auspices of its regular In the Evening There is Feeling series.

While I have historically been sceptical of the idea of art and design as an avenue for the evolution of Dundee’s radicalism, these events have certainly provided a vision for how they could be. In that sense, the Liberty Tree sapling may well be in the right place: it just remains to be seen how it may flourish, or wither.

Dundee has another famous tree that has a less turbulent past, The Camperdown Elm. With dense foliage and knotted branches, it may well prove the better visual metaphor for Dundonian history. One mutant finding on the Camperdown Estate led to the grafting of the tree onto other elms and the cultivation of a new species. One was gifted to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park by one A.G. Burgess in 1872, but by the 1960s, the tree was in poor health. Its saviour was to be the great American poet Marianne Moore. She wrote a beautiful poem in dedication to the tree which rallied support and left a portion of her will to establish a fund for the preservation of the park’s ‘crowning curio’.

In a special 1993 issue of Gairfish called The Liberty Tree, editors Bill Herbert and Richard Price put forward two perspectives on the future of Scottish radicalism. For Price, ‘the hope of our times’ lies in the development of Scotland’s cultural infrastructure: ‘in producing new kinds of persuasion, of setting in motion an inverse hegemonic prestige which will gain its momentum, like the r/evolution of the Liberty Tree, from being as close to the roots as it can get.’ While for Herbert, a return to and revision of the historical radicals is vital: ‘Only when the roots of a problem are challenged can its surface manifestations really be affected. Only by returning to the fantastic-sounding, ”unrealistic” agendas of the true Radical thinkers can people’s energies and solidarity be focused effectively.’

These are both hopeful perspectives from the perspective of our present moment, as venues like the Cooper Gallery continue to strengthen Dundee’s cultural infrastructure, and as figures from the city’s radical past are celebrated – of which the centenary year of Neddy Scrymgeour’s defeat of Winston Churchill and the coming republication of Mary Brooksbank’s Sidlaw Breezes are but the latest examples. It seems that Dundee’s radicalism, like Marianne Moore’s Camperdown Elm, is: ‘still leafing; still there. Mortal though. We must save it.’



James Barrowman is a writer and PhD student at the University of Dundee. His project, 'Counterfooting the Conjuring of a Ghaist', attempts to reimagine two lost plays by James Wedderburn from the sixteenth-century, by weaving together fragments and anecdotes from Dundonian history. He also works as a barista and a tour guide.

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