In the town of Tranent in East Lothian stands a statue of a local woman, Jackie Crookson.
With a drum under her arm, a defiant fist in the air and a child at her side, the statue commemorates Crookson’s efforts to rally the people of Tranent in protest against mandatory conscription in 1797.
If one were to imagine the statue accurately depicts Crookson at the protest, then it likely shows the final moments of her life.
On 29th August 1797, Crookson and a number of villagers were murdered by a detachment of British soldiers in what came to be known as the Massacre of Tranent.
The Massacre of Tranent
The Massacre of Tranent started as a protest against the conscription of working-class Scottish men but quickly boiled over into violence. Drafted in 1797, the Militia Act enabled the British Government to raise troops for local militias across Britain.
In Scotland, where up to 6,000 men could be drafted, the act empowered Lord Lieutenants to raise militia regiments in each of the “Counties, Stewartries, Cities, and Places” under their jurisdiction.
Concerns were raised that this Act would likely be used to raise troops for service in overseas conflicts and adversely affect the communities from which men were selected.
The Act also sparked widespread anger over the method of selection. A “ballot” would be used to select men for service. However, individuals were able to avoid selection by paying for a substitute to take their place – meaning that those with the financial means to avoid conscription were exempt.
Angered at the prospect of local men being conscripted, a proclamation was drawn up by the people of Tranent and adjoining colliery villages – such as Prestonpans – citing their objections.
The proclamation called for the Act be repealed, and outlined the locals’ unanimous disapproval of the conscription of militiamen in Scotland.
“Although we may be overpowered in effecting the said resolution, and dragged from our parents, friends, and employment, to be made soldiers of, you can infer from this what trust can be reposed in us if ever we are called upon to disperse our fellow-countrymen, or to oppose a foreign foe.”
On 28th August 1797, the proclamation was presented to local recruitment officers, who initially ignored the gesture. The following day, protestors from a number of local communities gathered to further voice their concerns, reportedly chanting “we’ll hae no militia here, no militia here!”.
To quell dissent in the area, a detachment of troops which included men of the Cinque Port light dragoons were deployed to the village. Faced with a raucous crowd of protestors, the soldiers opened fire.
Crookson and several others were killed in this initial barrage of gunfire, which sparked chaos among the protestors. As they scattered and ran, the violence escalated. The dragoons pursued some villagers, shooting, hacking and running them down indiscriminately.
The precise number of casualties is unknown, but it is believed that more than a dozen men, women and children were killed in the massacre while many more were wounded.
In the wake of the incident, blame was placed on poor discipline and a lack of stern leadership.
The officer in command of the Cinque Light Dragoons was Colonel Viscount Hawkesbury. However, at the time of the incident, Hawkesbury was in Haddington. It was later reported that his presence “might have prevented the outrages of the soldiery”.
His leadership failures did not prevent him from climbing the political ladder, though. Hawkesbury would later serve as Prime Minister.
The statue of Jackie Crookston and a child protestor was created by sculptor David Annand and unveiled in Tranent town centre in 1995.